This week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a game-changing ruling strengthening the link between climate change projections and the listing of endangered species. The decision will affect management of public and private lands. It will also transform future species’ listings, what constitutes best available science, and levels of scientific uncertainty acceptable in courtrooms.
On Monday, the justices upheld the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) to list the Beringia Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus nauticus) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The underlying basis was not an immediate threat to the seal or even declining numbers. It rested on changes to sea ice (their habitat) that are projected to occur off Alaska as far out as 2095, and based on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models.
The Beringia Bearded Seal lives on patches of ice floes over shallow waters in the Bering and Chuckchi Sea. They use these habitats for feeding, breeding, nursing, molting and protection against predators. In 2008 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NMFS to list the seals under ESA citing global warming as the primary threat.
NMFS first set out to establish the importance of ice floes as essential to the survival of the seal, and which it did using observational studies and peer review. NMFS then turned to IPCC climate change models. These project that by 2050 between 80% and 100% of summer ice floes will have disappeared during the seals’ critical life phases. NMFS examined the projections from 2050 to 2095 which show all summer ice will be gone over most of the seals’ range. Models from 2050 forward are more volatile because they can’t account for unforeseen factors (e.g. technology or policy breakthroughs). Taking all these data into account and involving two round of peer-review, NMFS determined to list the seal as a threatened Distinct Population Segment under ESA.
The State of Alaska, Oil and Gas Interests, and Native Tribes challenged NMFS decision. The 9th circuit court in San Francisco affirmed NMFS listing on the basis that the Service had used the best science available and reasonably. ESA, the justices noted, only requires best available science, not iron clad science nor at a too high a standard. Despite the volatility of climate projections from 2050-2095 the court concluded that this doesn’t deprive them of use in rule making.
The justices made a comment that may freeze many in their tracks. “Although Plaintiffs framed their arguments as challenging the long-term climate projections they seek to undermine NMFS use of climate change projections as the basis for ESA listings.” The court was having none of this. Climate-change models and projections even with uncertainties, they find, constitute the best available science.
At the end of the day this case turned on one critical question- “When NMFS determines that a species that is not presently endangered will lose its habitat due to climate change by the end of the century, may NMFS list that species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act?”
The 9th circuit court has answered with a definitive “yes”.
Reproduced with kind permission from Huffington Post. For a more indepth analysis of the science and ruling download this analysis or read it here in linkedin
Bearded Seal Image courtesy of NOAA
Preparing for Hurricane Matthew: Add environmental risks now to safeguard communities through hurricane season
wiAs Category 4 Hurricane Matthew strikes Jamaica and takes direct aim at Cuba and Haiti, extensive efforts are being made to safeguard lives and property. With winds over 130 mph (209km/hr.) the storm is expected to bring 40 inches (1,016 mm) of rain and severe coastal surge. As vital as these actions are, it is also important to understand that the state of a region’s environment can render it safer or at greater risk of harm when disaster strikes. Action taken now and in the aftermath can save lives, protect property, and keep the economy afloat.
Ecosystem health can ameliorate or exacerbate the effects of hurricanes, during the event itself and several days or weeks after the event has passed. Through ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction we’ve learned a great deal about when and how ecosystems affect risks. Here are some lessons learned for communities and responders to keep in mind to help safeguard communities and identify places that may have different or additional risks.
Ecosystem health can ameliorate or exacerbate the effects of hurricanes during the event itself, and for several days or weeks after the storm has passed. The consequences for life and property have often been devastating. Through ecosystem based disaster risk reduction we’ve learned a great deal about when and how ecosystems affect risks, but these factors are not yet mainstreamed into disaster management. Here are some lessons learned for entities and responders to use now in order to help safeguard communities and identify places that may have additional risks.
Deforestation increases the risk of flash floods and mudslides. Mudslides can occur days or even weeks after a hurricane. In Haiti severe deforestation has left large areas vulnerable. Downstream communities, even those less affected by wind and storm surge, may be exposed. Be aware of these risks and know that they can continue for some time after the immediate danger has passed. In some communities stabilizing the soil and safeguarding villages or settlements from mudslides will be a higher post-storm priority.
The confluence of rivers and sea is a dangerous zone in a hurricane. This is where storm surge meets raging river floodwaters. Risks are exacerbated if there has been upstream slope deforestation or developments that reduce absorption capacity. The tragic loss of Petite Savanne in Dominica during tropical storm Erika in 2015 reminds us to pay close attention to these areas and to those who live there. Located on the coast at the mouth of the river, a combination of flooding and surge destroyed the historic town with loss of live. The remaining residents were permanently relocated to other places.
Towns villages and critical infrastructures located on low-lying coastal zones or on flood plains are exposed to surge and flooding. Risks and impacts can be higher than expected if the ecosystems around them have been degraded and they cannot function as they once did.
For communities, businesses, and emergency responders an awareness of the ecological role in hazards and disasters is a valuable tool in their emergency response toolbox. It can reduce immediate and short-term damage and help to prioritize recovery actions to benefit those affected. Incorporating ecosystems into disaster management will be even more critical as sea levels rise and climate change become more pronounced. Lives, businesses, and communities are at stake. During this hurricane and throughout the season we hope that all will stay safe and secure.
PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION FROM MY HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLE
Published on New York Times Opinion Dotearth with acknowledgement to Andrew Revkin