New York, NY –
Standing at Cape Churchill on the back of a Tundra Buggy(R), surrounded by more than 20 large male polar bears who had suddenly become curious about my presence, was a life-changing moment for me. The only thing I could hear as the 1,000-plus-pound Lord of the Arctic padded towards me across the vast tundra was the whistling of the cold wind and my heart beating in my chest.
The grace, power and magnificent beauty of the polar bear is addictive — it has lured me back to Churchill, Manitoba, for more than 20 years. Each time I see the bears in their natural setting, I return to civilization with a clear understanding of the importance of the North and the significant role that humans must play in the stewardship of this planet.
On Wednesday, May 14th, 2008, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that the United States had reclassified the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. This recognition of the polar bear's fragile future is an important step in bringing awareness to the rapid warming taking place in the Arctic.
Over the past 25 years, the ice in the Arctic Ocean has diminished at an alarming rate. Last year alone, we lost over one million square miles of ice — an area the size of Alaska, Texas and the state of Washington combined. Polar bears need ice to hunt, to breed and, in most cases, to den. Without it, they cannot survive.
Whether humans have caused climate change in the Arctic is immaterial. Humans have to solve the issue by reducing the build-up of carbon dioxide. This is not a right or left political issue — it is a human issue. During the 4.5 billion years that this planet has been in existence, 99 percent of the species that have ever lived are now extinct. To think that humans are not in the crosshairs of extinction would be naïve. And to think that humans cannot overcome this challenge is equally naïve.
I grew up just north of the Everglades, where air conditioning and aerosol products played an important role in our overall comfort. When scientists realized that the fluorocarbons used in these products were contributing to an enormous hole in our ozone layer, humans came to the planet's rescue and quickly eliminated its use in everything from deodorants to refrigerators.
I also remember the first Earth Day in 1970 and how our awareness of the possible dangers of a wonder chemical, the pesticide DDT, helped to eliminate its widespread use and prevent what Rachel Carson called a "silent spring."
Humans can rally to stem environmental disasters. We could plant 10 trees for every one we remove, in effect replacing our planet's filtration system. If the Earth had the oxygen-producing forests of some 200 years ago, we would not have had problems of carbon build-up today. In addition to planting trees, individuals can make a difference by recycling and by buying products made recycled materials. If we can't make it fashionable to buy recycled products, we're just separating our garbage into neat little piles. We can drive less, and slow down, to make big energy savings — The oil companies we blame for carbon build-up are simply fulfilling consumer demand.
We're not facing extinction, but the polar bears are. To see a sentinel species that has been able to survive in the harshest environment become threatened is disheartening. But we can save the great white bears — and the entire planet along with them.
Robert W. Buchanan is the president of Polar Bears International, a polar bear conservation and education organization. PBI has launched 40 Arctic Ambassador Centers at zoos throughout the world to help visitors understand the Far North and Arctic ecosystems.