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.A NOAA press release from 5 May is here. It notes that
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.
"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 hereIf 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.