Saving polar bears: Not just for environmentalists

Dan Upham

Polar bears must have great publicists: Despite being the largest of all bears and the largest predators on land they are overwhelmingly cherished by the public at large, Stephen Colbert notwithstanding. And why not? They’re rugged, beautiful creatures, if not quite so cuddly or cola-loving as depicted in some advertisements. By way of generalization, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) members like most animals but go particularly nuts for polar bears. Hypothesis: People like an underdog, and polar bears in 2014 fit the bill.

Love them or fear them, on International Polar Bear day (today) and beyond (the other 364), the plight of the polar bear is in many ways representative of the challenges facing the environment, international commerce, and, to some degree, morality in the 21st century.

Environmental challenges

It’s no secret that the Arctic, where Ursus maritimus calls home, is one of the front lines of environmental degradation caused by anthropogenic (i.e., human-induced) climate change. To fully understand the scope of that degradation, consider some facts recently shared by Peter Sopher, a policy analyst for EDF’s Clean Energy Initiative:

  • Over the past three decades, warmer temperatures have caused Arctic sea ice to decline; in 2012, sea ice extent was half the long-term average.
  • Artic sea ice shrunk by an area roughly the size of Venezuela in the summer of 2012 alone, compared to what it was in 2011.  
  • If not curtailed, permafrost melting will bring the atmospheric carbon concentration to dangerous levels with disastrous consequences.

This animation, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, clearly shows the massive loss of Arctic ice since 1987.

    Climate change impacts on international commerce

    In the same post, Sopher highlights some staggering implications that climate change impacts expressed in polar bear territory could have on the global economy:

    • Risk analysts have reported that 67 countries with an “estimated combined GDP of $44 trillion will come under increasing threat from the physical impacts of more frequent and extreme climate-related events.”
    • The World Bank (2010) estimates annual climate change adaptation costs for the years 2010 to 2050 to be $70 to $100 billion for the developing world alone.

    Additionally, a melting Arctic opens the possibility for economic development of the regions considerable resources. This spells business opportunity, which is potentially good, but at significant climate risk.

    “While the science regarding permafrost melt’s climate implications remains uncertain, the risk is so enormous that turning a blind eye while developing the Arctic frontier is tremendously irresponsible,” Sopher writes. “The ensuing hastening of permafrost’s melt could lead to global economic costs that drastically exceed the benefits from Arctic development.”

    More than just an economic or environmental issue 

    “Despite the clear importance of taking economics seriously, ultimately, protecting the planet will need to be a moral issue,” EDF economist Gernot Wagner reminded me. “Kick out the economists and call in the priests, rabbis, and imams,” he joked. He’s certainly not the first to suggest the moral imperative of environmental protection, but it’s a concept that needs to be more widely embraced. It’s not just animals like polar bears that suffer; when whole nations consider relocating to avoid drowning the climate change battle takes on a new scope. “If by 2050, say, we are still debating the right carbon price, we’ll have lost that battle,” Wagner noted. “For now,” he is quick to add, “that’s exactly the conversation we need to have, and we need to have much more of it.”

    While a healthy environment and a thriving economy can exist in perfect harmony, it’s ultimately about something more than money, and more than just one species. As a recent article in The Economist about the long-beaked echidna of Indonesia pointed out: “Perhaps, after all, [this long-beaked echidna]  does have a use: to remind people that although putting numbers on nature is worthwhile, economics cannot quite capture the value of all the creatures sharing this planet.”

    See 1 comment