Leading article: President Bush to the rescue?

The administration of George Bush is not exactly known for its responsible stewardship of the environment. Lest we forget, Mr Bush is the President who wanted to open a protected part of Alaska to oil prospecting, until the plan was scuppered by Congress. He is the President, too, who - in an early act of defying the international consensus - reversed his predecessor's acceptance of the Kyoto treaty even before Congress had refused to ratify it. And he has given every impression of believing that global warming is not a threat - at least not one that the US needs to help avert.

So why is it that, two years before leaving office, the Bush administration has suddenly decided to embrace the cause of the polar bear? The Department of the Interior has now announced that the polar bear should be listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Given the known stance of the administration on such subjects, the explanation was little short of remarkable.

The Department of the Interior has reviewed all the available data and now accepts that the sea ice on which the polar bear depends has been receding. As a result, it has concluded that polar bears could be endangered within the relatively short span of 45 years. A department official is quoted as saying this: "Obviously, the sea ice is melting because the temperatures are warmer."

To which environmentalists the world over would be justified in asking what took the administration so very long. Regrettably, there is an easy answer: the administration is meeting the terms of an agreement it reached reluctantly with three campaigning organisations, including Greenpeace, which had gone to court, accusing the administration of tardiness in recognising the polar bear's plight. Now it is possible to approach yesterday's announcement with scepticism. It does not actually list the polar bear as threatened, it merely opens a three-month period of public comment. When the three months are up, the administration could simply let the matter drop - if campaigners do not keep up their pressure.

Let's not be too churlish, though. It may have taken a two-year review and a lawsuit, but the Bush administration is now on record as accepting the reality of global warming and also the need to do something about it. This is a huge advance, for the polar bear's plight cannot be considered in isolation. What applies to this bear applies to other species and other habitats around the globe. With a more alert public and a Democrat-controlled Congress, the Bush administration may even find itself forced to introduce statutory limits on US industry's carbon emissions. Now there's a tantalising thought for the New Year.

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