Editor’s Note: Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest and largest environmental organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The greater good. It’s a concept that runs throughout recent reports from the world’s scientists on the urgent need for climate action, the need to expand the role of lands in climate solutions, the need to slow the accelerating loss of protected wild places and to save wildlife. Yet, as the gutting of the Endangered Species Act this week demonstrates, it’s also a foreign concept to a Trump administration focused on putting profits ahead of people.
The new Endangered Species Act regulations issued this week sweep aside important protections for threatened and endangered species to benefit exploitative industries. Political motives – cynically justified in the name of economics and efficiency – are overruling science, with wildlife experts excluded from the decision-making process. That tragic result of these tactics, which are the modus operandi for Trump administration environmental policy, is that more species will cease to exist in our lifetime.
Everything about this rollback of protections is intended to make it more difficult to save wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive. Species listed as “threatened” from now on will no longer receive the automatic protections they deserve. Urgent threats like climate disruption can – and likely will – now be ignored, while the door to new threats has been opened as the administration adopts a piecemeal approach to conservation decisions where profit motives supersede science. It’s an approach doomed to failure for our wildlife and one that has been widely panned by Tribal Nations, congressional representatives, and people across the country.
This attack on the Endangered Species Act comes at the worst possible time. World scientists warn of extinction on an unprecedented scale – 1 million species are at risk. That’s almost unfathomable in itself, but when you consider how that potential crisis would affect humans, the consequences are even harder to comprehend. Everything from the food we eat to the water we drink would be touched by these dramatic losses to our ecosystems. And the principal driver for this disaster? The climate crisis.
Yet the Trump administration continues not only to ignore climate warnings but to flaunt its reckless denial. Instead of working to protect species being driven to extinction by climate change, this administration is trying to remove Endangered Species Act protections for them. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service is reportedly planning to delist the tiny Florida Key deer, a species likely to be wiped out due to sea level rise this century.
At one point, Interior Secretary Bernhardt testified before Congress that he hasn’t “lost any sleep” over the climate crisis or his role in it.
True to his word, during his brief tenure, he has not only undermined the Endangered Species Act to clear the way for destructive development but also glutted the market with new dirty-fuel leases on public lands and categorically refused to consider climate consequences in decision-making.
He’s rushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, despite the already visible damage that warming is having on the area. In the Arctic Refuge, Trump and Bernhardt are disregarding Indigenous rights and public wishes. They are instead prioritizing climate-polluting oil and gas interests over people and wildlife – wildlife that is central to the survival and way of life of the Gwich’in Nation.
Almost three years into the Trump administration, the news for threatened and endangered species is not good, but there is still hope. We still know how to save species – the Endangered Species Act has been extremely effective. More than an estimated 99 percent of the animals, plants, and insects protected by the law have been saved from extinction. Unsurprisingly, public support for maintaining the Endangered Species Act as a safety net for vulnerable wildlife has been and continues to be strong.
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We also know how to move forward in spite of this hostile administration. Every day across the country people are mobilizing to protect what we hold dear. Whether campaigning to protect local habitats or challenging wrongful actions through the courts, the Sierra Club will remain dedicated to protecting species from extinction. What’s needed right now, though, is a public outcry against this administration’s attacks on the right of wildlife to exist and a commitment to the greater good.