Save the Polar Bears!


Today is International Polar Bear day, an annual global event used to draw attention to the challenges polar bears face because of climate change, and suggest ways for the public to help. The pinnacle of this holiday is the thermostat challenge—this tasks us to save energy for polar bears by relying less on our heaters/AC to keep us cozy in our energy-sucking homes. Polar Bears International connects these actions to slowing (and perhaps stopping) the loss of sea ice via producing fewer carbon-based emissions, explaining the importance of the sea ice as habitat and hunting grounds for polar bears. Additionally, the organization encourages readers to sign a petition to demand the White House sets a fair price for carbon pollution to (theoretically) hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their damages to the environment.



While I’m fully onboard with taking steps to reduce our emissions, this holiday (which I found out about through my Ocean Conservancy calendar) led me to wonder how and why the polar bear became such an icon of climate change. In this article on Treehugger, Jon Mooallem—author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America—talked about the polar bear’s rise as the poster child for climate change. Mooallem explains that the Center for Biological Diversity used the polar bear’s declining populations and the Endangered Species Act to light a fire under the Bush administration’s bum to acknowledge the severity of climate change. By highlighting the connection between the endangered polar bear and climate change as the cause, environmental groups hoped to remind the government of their legal obligation to deal with the threat to an Endangered Species.



What began as a plan built on shaky reasoning eventually became something bigger than the environmentalists had anticipated—this charismatic megafauna made its way into the hearts of the public, tugging at our heart strings and encouraging us to take a stand for the environment. The polar bear has since lost its clout to other issues like drought and floods, but still remains recognized by many environmental groups as a reminder to reflect upon our carbon footprint. Mooallem makes a great point about relying so heavily on polar bears as a symbol that we lose sight of the real problem. While I see the public appeal of tying such large concepts as sea level rise, drought, and ocean acidification to species we can relate to, I share Mooallem’s concern for straying from the endgame. So if remembering the vulnerable polar bears compels you to change your thermostat, then they’ve done their job. Just don’t lose sight of the big picture issues they symbolize, and the numerous other systems and species entangled within the web of climate change.



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