philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving


Suppose a police department faces a crime epidemic and a corresponding unprecedented number of 911 calls. They decide the solution to all their problems is to unplug the phone. Ridiculous, right? A bill introduced to Congress last month by Arkansas Representative Bruce Westerman threatens to “unplug the phone” for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) --- even as we are in the midst of an unprecedented extinction crisis.

The ‘Providing ESA Timing Improvements That Increase Opportunities for Non-listing Act’ (PETITION ACT, H.R. 6255) proposes that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has a backlog of petitions for considering species as endangered of threatened, they simply prohibit review of new petitions and forgo all mandated timelines for species consideration.

The ESA established recourse for a national concern that many of our native animals and plants would go the way of the Dodo. The ESA requires the protection and rehabilitation of imperiled species. The USFWS is tasked with administering the edicts of the ESA.

The ESA is one of the few laws passed for the protection of non-human interests. But, contrary to what many ESA opponents might allege, the law was grounded in overwhelming bipartisan support. Passed in 1973 with near unanimous approval in Congress --- even a 92-0 vote in the Senate --- the ESA was a rare cause under which the political left and the right could unite in enthusiastic agreement.

A study conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity showed that the ESA boasts a 99% success rate when it comes to preventing the extinction of listed species—it works. The American Crocodile, Whooping Crane, Bald Eagle, Black-footed Ferret, and the California Condor provide famous success stories demonstrative of the ESA’s efficacy.

The PETITION ACT, however, would throw a calamitous wrench into this work by stifling the species listing process. Preventing listings is one of many objectives of the ESA’s political opponents, who have launched 308 legislative attacks on the law since 2011. Sometimes they target specific species like the Greater Sage Grouse; sometimes they target the listing process altogether by, say, trying to eliminate mandatory listing deadlines.  

Another appalling feature of the PETITION ACT is that it allows economic considerations to thwart ESA listings for species with scientific evidence of endangerment. This, of course, flies in the face of the ESA’s language, which abruptly declares that species have been “rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.”

The ESA’s --- and, indeed, the Supreme Court’s --- prioritization of species over development has even been reinforced by the landmark 1978 Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill case --- where the humble Snail Darter prevailed over a multimillion dollar dam project.

Sadly, political interference can bring ESA implementation almost to a grinding halt. From 2001 - 2008, for example, a total of only 62 species were awarded an ESA listing while over 250 species floundered in the candidate species backlog. While the PETITION Act is still far from becoming law, it is emblematic of increasing hostility against the ESA.

The USFWS’s frequent petition backlogs are certainly a problem, but the solution isn’t to unplug the phone. While many opponents of the ESA argue that the backlog is artificially created by environmental organizations, it actually demonstrates the crisis so many species currently face. Estimates suggest that up to 50% of all species on earth are at risk of extinction in the next century. We are losing species at 1,000 - 10,000 times the naturally occuring rate (amounting to what some experts are calling a Sixth Great Extinction).

Chronic underfunding of the USFWS’s endangered species program gives little chance for species petitions to gain timely investigation. For Fiscal Year 2018, the USFWS was awarded a meager $225 million to administer its endangered species program. That’s a paltry fraction of the probable billions of dollars needed to list, protect, and recover species in the full accordance with the ESA.

Our police department doesn’t stop crime by unplugging the phone, but could by hiring more officers and dispatchers. If we care about endangered species, we need to increase the USFWS budget. While Representative Westerman argues the petition backlog is a deliberate effort to overload the USFWS, he also helped pass a budget resolution to cut the department’s 2018 funding.

We face an extinction problem, not a petition problem.