Commentators inside and outside the environmental movement seized on the same metaphor when scientists warned that polar bears are in peril of extinction as global warming continues to melt their Arctic ice floes.
Observers equated the bears to canaries in a gas-filled coal mine, unleashing desperate alarms about their impending doom.
Any doubt about the dire nature of these warnings should be eliminated by President Bush's decision, through Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, to place the bears on the endangered species list.
This status for polar bears forces the Bush administration under the Endangered Species Act to find solutions to protect the giant beasts, obviously meaning reduction or elimination of greenhouse gases.
This could trigger tougher new government regulations on auto emissions and on smokestack industries that have lived a sheltered life during this Bush's presidency.
To his credit, Secretary Kempthorne did not mince words when announcing the polar bear listing.
"Polar bears are one of nature's ultimate survivors, able to live and thrive in one of the world's harshest environments," he said. "But we are concerned the polar bear's habitat may be literally melting."
The days are over for the likes of Oklahoma's Republican U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who used his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to pooh-pooh global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Inhofe's denial is as creepy as those who continue to insist the world is flat and U.S. moon landings were staged on a Hollywood sound stage.
It's no accident giant polar bears of the Arctic have been able to do what mountains of scientific studies have not achieved—moving the stubborn Bush White House to reluctantly show special concern about the effects of climate change.
Their species is suffering the results of temperatures in northern latitudes increasing at twice the worldwide rate, predicted to rise as much as 13 degrees by century's end. A frightening worst-case scenario has been forecast by the National Center for Atmospheric Research: summer sea ice could vanish by 2040.
Researchers are finding thinner bears, reduced survival rates among cubs and falling reproductive rates among females.
The gradually vanishing ice floes mean polar bears must swim farther to hunt, leading to more drownings and more acts of cannibalism by hungry bears.
The downside of the polar bear's listing as endangered is that the Interior Department has until year's end to collect comments before proposing remedies. This simply means more time for foot dragging and more months of greater risks to the survival of an essential link in nature.