Polar Bears — The New Canary

David Cassuto

Long ago, miners used canaries to measure the build up of toxic gases in the mines where they were working.  If the canary died, it was time to head out because the air was dangerous.  We don’t use canaries in mines anymore.  Now we use polar bears in the Arctic.  The threat to the bear serves as a monitoring mechanism of sorts for the global threat from carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

As you may recall, the impending demise of polar bears due to habitat destruction attributed to global warming generated some hooha not too long ago.  W’s Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, hemmed and hawed for as long as possible before finally declaring the bear a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  That designation would normally require federal action to address the cause (global warming) of the bear’s habitat.  However, the Bushies propounded a rule — later embraced by the Obama Administration, excluding carbon emissions from regulation under the ESA.  That made the bear’s victory (such as it was) pyrrhic at best.  Nonetheless, in the heady optimism of the time, many (including me) felt that it was perhaps better to wait for a statute explicitly aimed at mitigating national emissions rather than to use the blunt instrument of the ESA to accomplish a very complex regulatory act.

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Polar Bears, Secretary Salazar and Climate Change

Polar Bear ClimatePolar bears cannot catch a break.  The Bush Administration reluctantly declared the bear a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) a year or so ago.  The threat arose because of shrinking habitat caused by polar ice melting.  That ice melt is, of course, a result of climate change.

Once a species is classified as threatened or endangered, the ESA requires the government  to take steps to mitigate that threat and conserve the species’ habitat.  However, even as the Bush folks acknowledged (because they had to) that the bear was threatened, they propounded a rule excluding carbon emissions from regulation under the Endangered Species Act.  Thus, the very emissions that threatened the bear and whose diminution could lead to conservation of its habitat were not subject to regulation under the ESA.

The Obama Administration had the opportunity to rescind this rule but today, Secretary Salazar announced it would not. In his view, “[t]he Endangered Species Act is not the appropriate tool for us to deal with what is a global issue, and that is the issue of global warming.”  While environmentalists had hoped to use the ESA to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the Obama Administration is attempting to craft legislation and administrative rules that directly address the issue rather than work through a statute that arguably lacks the specificity necessary to accomplish the task.

I am of two minds about all this.  Though certain that the previous administration’s reasons for crafting the rule had little or nothing to do with developing an effective climate change mitigation regime, I do give the Obama folks the benefit of the doubt here, especially since they are in the process of crafting new rules and legislation.  I also agree that the ESA is not the best vehicle for addressing issues of climate change.

On the other hand, lots of statutes get adapted and applied in ways their drafters never imagined.  Furthermore, part of the ESA’s power lies in the fact that it is a blunt instrument.  If a species is threatened, then the law says that steps must be taken.  In that sense, the ESA is an excellent way to address climate change.  It forces the issue and demands swift unequivocal action.

By contrast, declaring a species threatened while simultaneously stripping the ESA of  jurisdiction over that threat renders the law impotent and irrelevant.  That is not good precedent.  Not good precedent at all.

Thoughtful post on the issue here.

–David Cassuto

FDA Reversal on Off Label Antibiotic Use: A Big Picture View

Here’s a newsflash:  Neither Laura Bush nor Condoleeza Rice think the Bush Presidency has been the worst in history.  Hmmm, I guess I’ll have to rethink…

In other less newsworthy matters, the FDA has reversed itself and decided to permit “off label” prophylactic use of cephalosporin antibiotics for industrial, confined “food” animals.  Off label use refers to administering a drug for purposes other than those for which it was tested and approved.  The FDA approved cephalosporin for treating respiratory illness in cattle and pigs as well as for a variety of human illnesses.  However, the animal industry had been making widespread use of it in other animals and for other uses.

Faced with the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance, the FDA had determined in July that using one of a dwindling number of effective antibiotics prophylactically and for other non-approved purposes in animals did not make sense.  It announced a ban on such behavior beginning on November 30th but withdrew the ban four days before it was to go into effect.  Apparently, Big Food and its allies were concerned that eliminating off label use would cause animals to suffer needlessly.  Read about their compassion here.  Of course, empathy does have limits.  For example, the possibility of not confining the animals in such close proximity apparently did not merit discussion.

Cynics among us might view the campaign to quash the rule as part of a coordinated campaign by Big Food and Big Pharma to maintain the profitability and preeminence of industrial agriculture despite ever-increasing human health risks and ongoing, routinized animal torture.  Those cynics might also view the FDA’s capitulation as a glaring example of agency capture.

But then, that’s the same kind of cynicism that causes people to misrepresent the Bush Presidency as a catastrophic failure.  As Secretary Rice observes, “historians who are now making judgments about the Bush administration and its Middle East policies aren’t very good historians.”

That must be it.

Hat tip to the Marler Blog for its disturbing and informative post on the cephalosporin issue.

David Cassuto

Factory Farm Emissions: No Solution = No Problem

AP reports that EPA has exempted the nations “farms”  from having to “report to authorities the toxic, smelly fumes released from manure.”  I have complained elsewhere about the use of term “farm” to refer to industrial confinement facilities so I’ll not belabor that issue.  Instead, let me just note that the Bush administration has reached yet another new low on yet another important animal/environmental issue.

Typically, the government adopts a band-aid approach when dealing with the dangerous, fetid emissions (which are also potent greenhouse gases)  from confinement facilities.  It issues a token regulation or asks for voluntary compliance with some standard that does pitifully little to address the pollution problem while wholly ignoring the accompanying ethical quagmire.  Our lame-duck president (apologies to ducks everywhere) has done this strategy one worse.

He (through his minions) has decreed that there is actually no problem and therefore no need for any solution.  Reaching this conclusion required a stunning display of reasoning backwards.  Barry Breen, Director of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, notes that “[w]hen there is a lagoon full of manure there is nothing our folks can do when they show up.” This impotence led the agency to conclude that there must not be anything to resolve.

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Harkin, Chair of the Agriculture Committee, criticized not the substance of the rule but its timing.  He complained that under the circumstances, the rule will almost certainly “be revisited by the new administration and Congress.”

Breathtaking.

David Cassuto