New Study: Polar Bears Can Still Be Saved From Extinction; Steep Emissions Cuts Needed

WASHINGTON, DC, December 16, 2010: A new paper published Wednesday in the science journal Nature confirms that it is not too late to save polar bears in Alaska from the impacts of global warming — but only if action is taken very soon. According to the study, the polar bear faces an overwhelming likelihood of extinction throughout much its range by mid-century and a high risk of global extinction by century’s end, if current greenhouse emission trends continue. But if total atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are stabilized by the end of this decade, extinction risk for the species drops substantially, according to the study. Researchers also found that for the most endangered polar bear populations, such as those in Alaska, the combination of emissions stabilization and the reduction of other forms of human-caused mortality reduces extinction risk even further.

“This paper confirms that it’s not too late to save the polar bear, but to have any realistic hope of doing so we must rapidly curb our greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also clear now that if we reduce other threats to the species, such as hunting and the risk of oil spills, we have a much better chance of saving polar bears in Alaska,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute and author of the 2005 petition that led to Endangered Species Act listing for the bear in 2008. “This study offers a road map for saving the polar bear. All we need now is for the Obama government to start following it.”  

According to the study, polar bears in Alaska face more than an 80-percent chance of extinction by 2050 under current emissions trends. However, with stabilization of atmospheric CO2 levels no higher than 450 parts per million by 2020, combined with the reduction of other forms of human-caused mortality and disturbance such as hunting and oil spills, extinction risk drops to approximately 25 percent.

“While this study is encouraging, a 25-percent extinction probability for Alaska’s polar bears is still far too high,” said Siegel. “To truly ensure the persistence of polar bears we should not only prevent atmospheric CO2 levels from ever exceeding 450 ppm — we must also do everything possible to reduce those levels to no more than 350 ppm.”

The lead author of the new study, Dr. Steven Amstrup, who recently retired from the U.S. Geological Survey and is now a senior Scientist with Polar Bears International, was also the primary author of a series of USGS reports released in September 2007 that informed the original Endangered Species Act listing decision in 2008. The new study comes as the Department of the Interior faces a court-imposed Dec. 23 deadline to determine whether polar bears should continue to be classified merely as “threatened” or be given additional protection as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. President Obama’s Interior Department has to date defended the Bush-era “threatened” designation, claiming that threats to the species are only of future concern — notwithstanding the fact that polar bears are already drowning and starving due to sea-ice loss, with many populations declining.

“Polar bears are facing a difficult future — and many populations are already experiencing global warming’s devastating effects — but this latest paper tells us we shouldn’t give up on them. There is still time to act and create a brighter future not just for these incredible animals, but for the rest of the world as well. But the window of opportunity is closing quickly,” said Siegel.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 315,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity

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