Polar bears must be one of Earth's most unlucky creatures. As the WWF states, "global warming is faster and more severe in the Arctic than in most of the rest of the world." Since the 1970s, Arctic sea ice has decreased by 14%. If temperatures rise by even 2 degrees, the region could be entirely transformed. There are few more striking examples of how man-made global warming is devastating a natural environment.
But the global impact of the Arctic destruction is even more worrying. As the ice melts, sea levels are set to rise, having far-reaching effects on climate patterns across the globe. NASA's Dr Chip Miller has likened the Arctic to "an early warning system for the entire planet." A recent study, published in Nature, estimated that meltwater from Greenland alone totalled 186 billion tonnes a year between 2003 to 2010 - massively higher than the average rate of 75 billion tonnes a year between 1900 and 1983.
The fate of the polar bear is thus entirely interconnected with the fate of humanity; the increasing challenge posed to us by rising sea levels and global warming is concurrent with the increasing destruction of the polar bears' arctic habitat. In saving the polar bear, we would make a significant leap toward saving the planet.
International Polar Bear Day, February 27, is organised by Polar Bears International. It aims to focus peoples' attention on the amount of energy that they are using, highlighting the undeniable impact that carbon emissions are having on the polar regions and on polar bears.
I spoke to Robert Swan, a polar explorer who is the first person to walk both the North and South Poles. Given that climate change is far more visible in the Arctic, and that the vast majority of people therefore do not see the full extent of the damage firsthand, I asked him if 'seeing is believing' when it comes to climate change. "Not everybody can see it… but they SHOULD believe it," he replies.
"Science is trying to tell us that the Polar Regions are one of the great examples of climate change - it’s fairly obvious." Swan says. "Ice melts and these are the places showing us. Only a very few privileged people are able to see this in person. This is part of my job: to explain and inspire people that this IS real." His company, the 2041 Foundation, aims to empower the next generation of leaders to take action on the environmental challenges that they face.
Swan has witnessed the effect that climate change is having on the polar bear population. He has encountered wild polar bears on many occasions, and has noted a greater willingness to attack humans as their plight becomes increasingly desperate. The habitat that their survival depends upon is literally vanishing beneath their feet.
I ask him whether he believes that International Polar Bear Day is effective or important. "Yes, very much so, because polar bears are showing us that these things are happening and they are directly suffering. It is important for the masses to understand the correlation between climate change, wildlife and people, whom also are suffering."
On Polar Bear Day, Polar Bears International encourage people to take their 'thermostat challenge,' which involves turning down your thermostat by a few degrees in the winter, and turning it up by a few degrees in the summer. If this small action is taken on a mass scale it would save a colossal amount of energy, particularly if many people made a permanent change. They also encourage people to insulate their homes to save energy, and weather strip their windows and doors.
If people could take one single action on International Polar Bear Day, Swan encourages them to "think seriously about where their energy is coming from and make a change."
Finally, I asked Swan what he believed to be the single biggest factor holding back action on climate change: "People know that we need to change, especially in the West. But, people aren’t changing enough. It’s to do with going one step further and to alter a life style: where are you getting your food, energy and consumer products etc.? The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."
Robert Swan will be joining us at the Environment Summit to share his incredible story and discuss climate change. To join the discussion, register and purchase your ticket here.