issues : Environment

Polar Bears

By Carla Wise, 4.16.2007
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Polar Bears and Global Warming

Polar bears are in big trouble.  Although they are spectacular swimmers, the great white bears live and den on land and ice in the vast northern circumpolar region, and the sea ice on which they depend is melting away.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service, under intense public pressure, is considering whether to list them under the Endangered Species Act.  And the best available science shows that polar bears are declining, and the summer sea ice on which they depend may disappear completely by mid-century, leaving them stuck up in the far north without a paddle.

Strangely, although I’m a conservation biologist, I’m having a hard time getting too worked up over the polar bear’s problems.  I’ve studied, taught, and written about endangered species.  I’ve worked on rare plant recovery, wolf reintroduction, and the genetics of endangered species.  I’ve worried about habitat destruction, invasive species, and the loss of the earth’s rainforests.  But I just don’t care anymore.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote a seminal book about extinction back in 1981, when I was just starting college.  I read their book, and it helped shape my future.  In it, they compared causing extinctions with tossing away rivets on an airplane one by one until one day the wings fall off.  But it always seemed to me that our survival was not the only issue.  I believe(d) that we have an ethical obligation to do what we can to stop extinguishing other species.  I also believe(d) each loss of another species impoverishes humanity in some way.

Then came global warming.  Not the barely detectable, debatable global warming of the 1980s.  The global warming of 2007.  After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the onset of earlier springs, drowning polar bears, disrupted migrations of birds, the spreading northward of bark beetle infestations, and the accelerating rate of sea level rise.  In Oregon, where I live, we’re already experiencing everything from smaller snowpacks and changing patterns of animal distributions to rising sea levels and more severe, deadly wildfires. Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report.  It states that warming is unequivocal, that greenhouse gases are the most significant cause, and that human activity is primarily responsible.  The range of predictions about future climate change is unpleasant, to say the least.
I wish we hadn’t released all the carbon in the atmosphere, and I could go back to worrying about endangered species.  What we have instead is a future where business as usual will put all species at risk, even common ones. Even us.  Climate scientists are telling us that this is a global emergency, and we need to start turning this ship around now.  Otherwise, climate change is likely to be so rapid and severe that much of the earth will not be recognizable or habitable as it is today.

So, I’m spending my time these days on climate change, I urge you to support climate solutions.
Here are some suggestions:

I’ll start with the hardest—reducing your personal share of carbon emissions.  Any change you make to use less gas, less electricity, or less hot water reduces global warming pollution.  Driving less in more efficient cars helps.  So does insulating your home, changing to CF light bulbs, installing high efficiency appliances, getting an energy audit, or flying less. 

Less obvious but just as important is what we buy and what we eat.  Because so much global warming pollution is created in moving food and products around the world, and in manufacturing “stuff,” one of the most powerful changes you can make is in how you shop.  Shop for local food and local products.  I also believe in the power of the polite request.  Simply asking for local products everywhere you shop has great potential to create awareness and then change among merchants.

Solving the climate crisis won’t be possible by personal choices alone.  We need new laws at every level, from local to international, to get our climate under control.

You can help make political change to develop global warming solutions.  On April 14, all over the country, a national movement to curb climate change is being launched. Over 800 actions are being organized in all 50 states to call for swift, strong federal action to implement 80% cuts to carbon emissions by 2050.  This movement, “Step it up” is being organized primarily over the internet. See for more information, to join the action near you, or to get help organizing your own action.

A number of national environmental organizations are getting quite serious about finding and promoting solutions to the global climate crisis.  The Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists are two excellent sources of information.  Joining these or other organizations working on global warming helps create change.

Carbon offsetting is reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions in one place in order to “offset” emissions occurring somewhere else.  Reasonable people disagree about whether this approach has value.  I personally believe there is a place for it, for those of us who drive, fly, heat, and eat, and can afford to contribute to offset projects.  Some offset projects invest directly in developing new renewable energy projects and reforesting tropical forests.

Clean Air-Cool Planet produced a report in December that does an excellent job of discussing the pros and cons of offsets, and ranking 30 of the most prominent carbon offset companies on a number of important criteria.  If you are considering this approach, take a look at it:  it's available for free at: (pdf).

Buying green power from your power company is a form of carbon offsetting, since you are purchasing renewable, clean power that would otherwise have to be created from burning fossil fuels.

This is a very important time we are living in.  Now is the time for extraordinarily swift, strong, positive action. Reduce, regulate, offset.  Begin today.

As for you polar bears, I wish you well.



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