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New tool to fight global warming: Endangered Species Act?

A recent deal to protect the habitat of endangered coral may offer US environmentalists new leverage.

Elkhorn coral, whose decline is blamed on climate change, will now have its habitat safeguarded.

US Geological Survey/AP/file

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Environmentalists may have gained a powerful new legal weapon to fight global warming: the Endangered Species Act.

That's the fallout some expect from a settlement last week between environmentalists and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The government agency agreed to protect the "critical habitat" of elkhorn and staghorn coral, the first species to be recognized as threatened by global warming.

By protecting habitat, not just species, the federal government could be in a position to fight any threats to that habitat, including possibly, global warming, some environmentalists say. While no one expects the US to stop, say, a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest to save Florida coral, the settlement does expand the leverage of the 1973 law that protects species from extinction.

"We think this victory on coral critical habitat actually moves the entire Endangered Species Act [ESA] onto a firm legal foundation for challenging global-warming pollution," says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz., that filed both coral suits.

Indeed, the coral-protection victory may be just the beginning of a push to use the ESA to fight global warming, he and other environmentalists suggest.

The pair of coral species are struggling to survive because Florida's and the Caribbean's waters have become warmer and more acidic. Many scientists attribute the change to global warming.

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