WASHINGTON — It's not about saving the polar bear as much as the polar bear saving us.
The Arctic bear facing extinction because of global warming is bringing home the consequences of cheap energy and — until recently — the need for little sacrifice.
It also reminds us that the time soon may come to accept higher electricity and transportation costs and reduce the pollution that is raising the earth's temperature.
In listing the bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the Bush administration is taking pains to draw a line between protection of the majestic mammal and the origin of its plight — global warming.
"This listing should not open the door … to regulating greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
There is a reason for that. Business fears the bear.
But will the administration, in its final eight months in power, be able to maintain that firewall? The odds are it will not.
Environmentalists already are working on strategies for lawsuits challenging the limits on the polar bear listing. In fact, those restrictions may not survive a new administration.
All three presidential candidates agree that mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases are needed. An increasing number of businesses, including some oil companies and coal-burning utilities, and religious leaders are acknowledging the need to address global warming.
It is no wonder that some in the business world view the bear with trepidation.
The massive, powerful creature that lumbers across the Arctic ice may accomplish what 20 years of environmental activism has not: force the issue that global warming already is having an effect and that there is a price for both action and inaction.
"This animal is big, it's charismatic and it's powerful. It's beautiful and it generates sympathy. If it blinks out, you'll notice," said Steven E. Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo and three other New York City zoos. "They are very popular personalities."
Sanderson said that he welcomes the listing of the bear as threatened and that as a result it will get additional protection. But he worries it might be too late for many of the 25,000 polar bears that roam the wild. "There's so much climate change inertia built into the system already," he says.
No one really knows how much influence the bear will have on the climate debate. But it is certain that there will be plenty of polar bear pictures on display in the Senate when lawmakers next month are expected to begin debating the cost of curbing greenhouse gases and the cost of doing nothing.
Legislation would, for the first time, impose mandatory limits on carbon dioxide. Such limits, by all accounts, will mean that people will pay more for electricity, gasoline and other fossil energy.
But then there are other costs: the loss of an Arctic icon.
H. Josef Hebert has covered environmental and energy issues since 1990.