Monday, May 15, 2006

US "legally obliged" to protect reefs

As Geoffrey Lean reports it (14 May), the Bush administration has formally admitted that global warming is killing coral reefs:
...And the admission means that, under US law, [the administration] will finally be obliged to take action to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.

The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has this month ruled that two species of coral - elkhorn and staghorn - must officially be registered as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, partly because they are imperilled by rising sea temperatures. They are the first species ever to be listed as a result of global warming.
A NOAA press release from 5 May is here. It notes that "primary factors include disease, temperature-induced bleaching, and physical damage from hurricanes". The press release does not make reference to anthropogenic climate change. A report on their 12 May ruling is here

If Lean's interpretation (apparently based on comments such as these from Brent Plater at the Center for Biological Diversity) is correct, then it looks as if this prediction for 2006 (here and here) could turn out to be right (see also Myles Allen here).

A threat that liablity for consequences for global warming may become enforceable in law may contribute to pressures to undermine that law. In this regard , an overhaul of the US Endangered Species Act which "would give would give political appointees the authority to make critical scientific judgments now reserved for federal scientists" (according to this editorial in the 13 May Register Guard) could prove useful. The case of the coral itself may be neither the trigger nor a direct contributory factor for this proposed change. But it would go with the grain of policy.

Two more points: 1) it has been suggested that the category "threatened" offers little protection under the ESA, and that the category "critically endangered" would be more effective. To this, Brent Plater responds:
It is not correct to say that a threatened listing involves little if any real protection for the corals. Arguably the most important protection provided by the Endangered Species Act, the "consultation" process which requires every federal action to be altered or halted if the action will jeopardize the corals, comes into effect on June 8. A threatened listing also requires critical habitats to be designated and protected within 12 months, and a recovery team to be formed and a recovery plan to be created. In fact the only difference between an endangered and a threatened listing is that the prohibitions against "take" of the species may be slightly modified and will be delayed by about 1 year. Basically that means private (non-federal) actors are not regulated for 12 months, but even most so-called private actions that affect coral are federalized by requiring a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, or the EPA.Besides, most of the activities that constitute take of these corals by private persons is already prohibited under state, federal, or international law.
and 2) Tom Goreau says:
I understand that the ruling refers to elevated sea surface temperatures, hurricanes and disease. It is the case that disease has been the major killer of Caribbean Acropora. Global warming is a contributory factor. In the Pacific, global warming has been the number one killer of Acropora species, but none of those hundreds of species have been put on the list.
But see the comment appended to this post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caspar, there is no such thing as “critically endangered” under the Endangered Species Act; that is an IUCN criterion that doesn’t exist in domestic law. It is just called Endangered. I also think its stretching it to think that the coral listing is leading to the undermining of the Endangered Species Act in Congress. That question has never been raised in the debates; most opponents of the Endangered Species Act are fearful to raise the corals issues because with those species we have documented evidence that their loss will actually cost us billions of hard dollars. The developers and the politicians they give money to in the U.S. have plenty of other bones to pick with America’s imperiled fish and wildlife, and they haven’t needed to bleached coral to add fuel to their unholy fires.

Furthermore, the final rule does not focus on diseases, nor does it say that global warming is simply a “contributing factor.” The final rule instead lists elevated sea surface temperature as a “major threat” to corals, along with disease and hurricanes. The rule also suggests that the synergistic effects of these threats are worrisome. The scientific literature is replete with references that show that each of these three threats—hurricanes, sea surface temperature and even disease—are made worse by global warming. No other threat or source but global warming can be behind all three of these major threats attributed by NMFS. The final rule clearly reflects this, although it also impliedly shows the Bush Administration’s lock-down on agency scientists providing attribution for global warming to human agency.

7:34 am  

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