Don't Use Polar Bears to Push Climate Change Regulation

Polar bears have become the proverbial posterchild animal for environmentalism, despite the fact that the species "has not been restricted to a critically small range or critically low numbers, and has yet to suffer any substantial reduction in numbers or range," according to a recent statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many environmentalists disagree with the Obama administration's recent decision to list polar bears as "threatened" — not "endangered" — under the Endangered Species Act. I suspect, however, that these environmentalists are using the polar bear as a red herring; an alternative way to force climate change regulation without going through Congress. If the polar bear were listed as "endangered," then the federal government would be required to take measures to reduce emissions to protect polar bears' habitat. According to an article in the New York Times, polar bears cannot be used as a reason for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as long as the bear is listed as threatened, due to a regulation left over from the Bush administration.

Even if this debate were actually just about the preservation of polar bears, a knowledge problem exists. The government is no more omniscient than you or I. Just as government officials do not know with certainty which industries and businesses will be successful in the economy, they can only guess at which animals are on the brink of extinction, or whether climate change is even occurring.

Whenever the government intervenes in the market or in the environment, there are unintended negative consequences, such as higher energy prices and reductions in aggregate economic output. Thus the status of polar bears should be left as is, and not co-opted for another environmental agenda, or else the government risks doing more harm than good.

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