The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, Dec. 29:

Long the poster child of global warming, this week the polar bear became its official icon.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed designating the bears “threatened” by the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice, which is essential to their survival.
It’s the first time the Bush administration has attributed a species’ decline to climate change.
Still, with typical administration equivocation, Kempthorne said Wednesday that although his department was worried about the polar bear, it wouldn’t speculate on why the ice was melting or what to do about it.
Polar bears are an indicator species – a signal to watch for impending problems in the Arctic and around the world. They’re struggling because of rising temperatures caused, in part, by the buildup of heat-trapping gases from tailpipes and smokestacks.
This country needs to stop ignoring the flares and put out the fire.
Several years ago, the photogenic white bear, beloved of children, became global warming’s media darling. Images of creatures crowded on shrinking ice floes have adorned magazine covers, TV ads, and Web sites beneath headlines warning, “Be worried; be very worried.”
The alarm is justified by research indicating that Arctic ice could decrease as much as 80 percent in the next 50 years.
That would deprive polar bears of habitat they need to travel, hunt, mate and den. Scientists doubt the speed of change will give the bear time to adapt to hunting onshore.
In western Hudson Bay, Canada, the southernmost polar bear habitat, spring ice is breaking up three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago and freezing later in the fall. Researchers have observed thinner bears, lower reproductive rates, and reduced juvenile survival. That group, one of 19 clusters worldwide, dropped 22 percent between 1987 and 2004.
The three Alaskan groups, numbering about 4,700 of the 20,000 to 25,000 bears worldwide, seem in less immediate danger. But they, too, show stress. Bears have been observed swimming miles offshore in open water. Four drowned in 2004, a highly unusual occurrence. Starving, some have resorted to cannibalism.
Three environmental groups sued in 2005 to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. “Threatened” is less dire than “endangered,” which means a species faces imminent extinction.
The Interior Department will decide within a year whether to grant the “threatened” designation. If so, it must devise a recovery plan to reduce activities that cause harm – a tricky prospect. States, led by California, have tackled global warming by imposing mandatory reductions of carbon emissions from cars, trucks and power plants, but, so far, Congress has ducked the debate.
The stakes are much higher than polar bears. A warmer Alaska has been linked to river erosion, insect infestations, and the sinking of roads and pipelines into a not-so-permafrost. If humans don’t act soon, the Arctic may be only the beginning of a radically changed world.