A Weakened Endangered Species Act?

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The Endangered Species Act was signed in 1973 by a Republican President, after having passed Congress with bipartisan support. It was intended “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of [multiple international] treaties and conventions” designed “to conserve to the extent practicable the various species of fish or wildlife and plants facing extinction.”

No legislation is perfect or uncontroversial, and the Act is no exception. But the Act has been a pragmatic means to offer needed protection to our environment, while preserving ecologically important species that depend on it. Just as intended!

The US administration has recently announced measures to weaken the implementation of the Act. Particularly noteworthy, are the allowance for economic considerations in the process of listing species as threatened or endangered; and the reduced ability to account for climate change among the conditions that might determine such listing. Both are dangerous slippery slopes, as recent articles in the mainstream press (such as this NYT Editorial) explain in clear language by and for non-scientists.

As an oceanographer with a lifetime of scientific research dedicated to studying estuaries, I have watched the application of the Act up close. When called upon, I have provided objective data, analyses or predictions—often to help opposing sides on Act-related issues come to a consensus on the science relevant to their discussions. Never did I take sides—believing that it is up to the citizenry to collectively make societal choices, once scientists like me provide best-available, objective, replicable information.

The role of scientists is first and foremost to learn, understand, and inform—objectively. They need to interpret data, and reach scientific conclusions, in ways that are not affected by their political preferences or agendas. Most scientists walk this balance carefully, uneasily, and ethically. As they should.

This is one of the reasons why the Intergovernamental Panel on Climate Change reports need to be taken extremely seriously, and their recommendations acted upon internationally with due haste. Those reports reflect hard-argued consensus among knowledgeable acientists. Their reputation, pride and honesty make them tend to err on the side of caution. If that large group of scientists, reflecting the research of an even larger number of peers, have come to a consensus that climate change is real, drastic, and mostly man-induced—we truly ignore their warnings at our own (major) peril.

In the face of climate change—and of many separate reports of the extinction of numerous  species worldwide,—the weakening of the Endangered Species Act is untimely. Speaking as an informed citizen, I consider this weakening a concerning and potentially profound change in the framework that our nation uses to make sustainability decisions.

As this administration continues to erode sensible environmental legislation, I fear for a society that limits the role of rigorous science on policy. For a society that does not internalize the need for balanced and objective frameworks of environmental decision. For a nation and world that can not come to grips with the obvious: It is not a choice between the economy and the environment. It is both—or, ultimately, it will be none!

— Antonio Baptista

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