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The environment couldn't gain a foothold as an issue in the election, and yet last week we learned that polar bears are threatened because of global warming.

The multination Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report, which reflects the work of 300 scientists, says greenhouse gases are causing the Arctic to lose ice rapidly. By the end of this century, up to 60 percent of the ice could be gone. It could totally disappear each summer.

And that, the report says, means polar bears are unlikely to survive. A host of other economic and social problems will develop, too, in this malady caused by the unfettered use of fossil fuels.

We have to change course in this country. Unfortunately, the Bush administration hasn't shown much interest in protecting the environment in general, or stopping global warming in particular.

Earlier news about the plight of the polar bears likely wouldn't have swayed voters in the presidential election. But Americans need a reminder that this country is going the wrong way with officials' inattention to -- or outright disregard of -- environmental concerns.

Four years ago, the environment was a big issue in the contest between Al Gore and George Bush. Conservation, global warming and clean air and water were high on many voters' lists. This year, the war, terrorism and values overshadowed other issues.

Environmental groups are justifiably concerned that Bush will continue the folly with our air and water seen in the last four years. Last month Knight Ridder Newspapers reported these statistics from Bush's first term:

Superfund cleanups of toxic waste fell by 52 percent; warnings about not eating tainted fish caught in rivers and lakes increased significantly; beach closings rose 26 percent; civil citations and criminal prosecutions of polluters dropped; and asthma attacks went up.

Bush reversed course on a Clinton-era directive to protect forests from logging and destructive road-building, approved 74 percent more permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands, and backed down from the federal timetable for ridding the air of mercury poison from power plant emissions.

There's reason to fear that more is to come. For instance, Michael Levitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told the New York Times that the election this month "is a validation of our philosophy and agenda." In addition to revising clean-air laws, that agenda is reported to include softening animal protections under the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

Americans should make it clear to their representatives that the environment still matters to them and that the election is not "a validation" of the administration's agenda on the environment.

Sending the polar bears the way of the passenger pigeon would show we still are shortsighted and selfish about the planet despite the warnings that modern science provides us.

Laura Scott is assistant editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star.

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