May 19, 2014

Celebrating 40 Years of the Endangered Species Act

In Rhode Island, our way of life has always been tied to the sea. The ocean provides food for our table, attracts tourists to our shores and gives us an appreciation for the wonders of our planet. Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound support jobs in trade, fishing, boat and ship building, and soon, we hope, offshore wind energy.

New England’s coasts are home to North Atlantic right whales, which migrate along our coastline, as do humpback and fin whales. Hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley and leatherback sea turtles can be spotted in the summer.  Piping plovers seek refuge on our shores. These iconic creatures of our region are afforded special protections under the Endangered Species Act, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.

Unfortunately, what Pope Francis has described as our “ocean wonderworld” is put at risk by polluted runoff, chemical dumping, overfishing, marine debris, invasive species, warming waters and, perhaps most alarming, rising acidity of ocean water. Individually, each of these problems would be cause for concern. In combination, they are driving us toward the brink of ecosystem collapse.

Ocean warming and acidification are the direct results of carbon pollution, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past 250 years, the global annual average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 30 percent. Most of that has been in the past few decades. The carbon concentration has gone up by 15 percent just since 1980. We have now far exceeded measurements of atmospheric carbon going back at least 800,000 years.

Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps energy from the sun, raising the temperature of the Earth. Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases during the past 50 years.

Oceans also have absorbed about 30 percent of our carbon emissions, changing the pH of the uppermost layer of ocean water. As a result, the acidity of the ocean has increased by nearly 30 percent. By the end of this century, it’s projected to be 160 percent more acidic.

These are unprecedented ecological shifts, which are happening too quickly for life all over the planet to adapt. In the history of geologic time, there has never been recorded such a rapid worldwide increase in atmospheric carbon and ocean acidity.

That’s why the Endangered Species Act is so important. For four decades, the Endangered Species Act has helped scientists and conservation agencies protect species and habitat. The passage of the law made the difference between extinction and recovery for some of our most iconic species, such as the bald eagle, the gray wolf and the North Atlantic right whale. Today, those protections are more vital than ever.

We must ensure that the Endangered Species Act remains effective in the face of a changing climate. Federal agencies are beginning to adapt their scientific and management practices to protect endangered species against the array of threats they face today. In some cases, this means incorporating what climate change will cause into decisions regarding threatened and endangered species.

Conserving our nation’s wildlife and its natural habitat has long been an honorable and worthy goal on both sides of the aisle. This is a legacy that should be celebrated, not attacked or weakened for short-term economic or political gains. Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee called the law “the pit bull of environmental statutes,” and fought to maintain its protections in the 1990s. I am proud to carry on that commitment today.

Forty years ago, we made a promise to do what we could to shield the animals and plants of the Earth from extinction. Today, the threats are worse than then. So it’s up to all of us to live up to the promise of the Endangered Species Act.

By: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Source: ecoRI