Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stopping Everything

When your circular path deepens into a trench, you know you're making real progress.

Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there are people out there who actually want to put an end to this sort of progress, just when the trench is getting comfortably deep. And it's all for the sake of the polar bear, a vicious and thankfully farflung monster that'd just as soon rip your throat open as look at you.

Remember when the snail darter brought Western Civilization to its knees by temporarily blocking the ill-conceived and unnecessary Tellico Dam? Well, if polar bears are declared an endangered species, you could be fined or imprisoned simply for starting your car. Anything that could conceivably contribute to global warming will be made illegal, up to and possibly including breathing. Life as we know it will simply end.

Don't drink that bottle of drain opener just yet, though. First, let's consider whether the polar bear is actually in trouble. Granted, they need ice, and plenty of it (at least according to biologists, whom you have to admit are not exactly neutral, given that their opinions diverge on occasion from the commonsense beliefs of the average citizen).

But whether the ice is melting, or will melt, is less pertinent than the fact that no one actually knows how many polar bears there are: some say the number is going down, while others say it's going up:

For example, University of Pennsylvania Professor J. Scott Armstrong told Science Daily that "the polar bear populations have been increasing rapidly in recent decades due to hunting restrictions."

Others, such as biologists Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher, see troubling signs of decline in specific subpopulations that live in regions more affected by ice melts.
They can't both be right...unless polar bears are somehow threatened by loss of habitat while rebounding from overhunting. Without getting into scholastic niceties like these, let's all just agree to agree that no one has any idea what's going on with polar bears, and that any claim to the contrary is a vain and sinful departure from the doctrine of learned ignorance.
The truth is, as noted by my American Enterprise Institute colleague Kenneth Green in a recent article, "Is the Polar Bear Endangered, or Just Conveniently Charismatic?" we just don't have the data to assess what is happening.
That being the case, you must assume that everything is just ducky, much as you would if you wanted to write a large check, but had no idea how much money was in your bank account.

The alternative to carefree optimism is too terrible to contemplate, so let's go right ahead and contemplate it:
The snail darter almost killed a dam. The polar bear could, in theory, stop everything.
Everything! In theory, yeah, granted. But still...everything! No matter what sort of Ivory Tower you inhabit, you have to sit up and take notice when everything stops. No man is an island!

Picture a world, not far from today, in which everything has stopped. It's dark. It's cold. There's no food. No one can travel except on foot or on a "bicycle," but no one travels in any case because there's nowhere to go in a world that has stopped. Is that really what you want? When your child comes to you in tears, begging to be allowed to chew for a time on your belt, will you truly be comforted by the thought that on some ice floe thousands of miles away, a polar bear is biting the head off a baby seal?

Short of everything stopping, Hassett also worries that ruling in favor of polar bears might "heighten pressure on the United States to adopt a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade emissions program," which could inconvenience the companies that fund his thinktank. Plus, it could stop or slow oil exploration in the Arctic, which "is the only thing standing between us and $200-a-barrel oil." It stands between us and $200-a-barrel oil temporarily, if at all, but what of it? Life itself is temporary; it's a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and vanisheth away.

Enough philosophizing, though. Let's get back to the facts:
Many biologists think global warming is a serious threat to the polar bear. If that leads to the polar bear being listed as threatened this week, then the world you live in will have fundamentally changed.
Here's hoping, pal.

Hassett, by the way, is apparently an adviser on economic policy for John McCain. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that the paper that printed this drivel should've said as much.

(Photo by PhotoGraham.)

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