The press recently reported scientists finding the carcasses of four drowned polar bears floating in the sea. A polar bear drowning? How can a polar bear drown? It’s a powerful swimmer, equally at ease on land as under water. What happens is (possibly, apparently) that climate change is making their ice fields break up, so that they have to swim more from one place to another. And swimming more and further tires them out, and eventually they get hypothermia in the water and drown.
I imagined the anger and confusion and suffering of the bear as it weakened and began to flounder in the water. Perhaps it all happened at night. Perhaps they tried, hopelessly, to save each other, panicking and flailing in the dark in huge, ice-cold arctic waves. All because of climate change.
Of course my first thought was to be angry at the Americans. A “Thanks, George” emotion. They don’t want polar bears anyway because they will get in the way of oil drilling in Alaska. And it’s all their fault because of their SUVs and Exxon. But that is a silly response. It is all of our faults. Americans might be on average marginally fatter and greedier and lazier and more selfish and more profligate than the rest of us, but only half-an-inch around the waist more. And that average masks the fast that there are some quite nice ones, too.
Is there anything useful to be had out of this ugly tragedy of the ice floes?
There is something about a polar bear which is different from beetles or trees. So while we may be sad about the swathes of forest in the Ukraine which have been attacked by root canker apparently onset by climate change, the empathy is weaker for most people (although not for those of us who love trees). But a bloody polar bear, he’s a chum we can identify with. We’ve seen him in nature films, in the zoo, in cartoons, in books. We think he’s lovely and cuddly. He’s pretty much like our dog. Just bigger and whiter and lives in the north pole. We don’t want him drowning, going the way of the dodo, we want to do something about it.
Perhaps this is the first real victim of climate change we can feel passionate enough about to respond properly. Because we are always hearing about Bangladeshis and Indians drowning anyway. Hardly a week goes by without a crowded ferry capsizing. So what difference will climate change make? And is hasn’t happened yet, either. And we are always hearing about the rainforests being destroyed but it does not stop us eating Brazilian food grown in place of the forest (whether that would help or not, I don’t know). We can’t make the connections, we can’t connect with trees and we can’t connect with poor people a long way away. But we can connect with bears. They are deep in our psyche from when we were little: Winnie the Pooh, Rupert, Paddington, Barnaby, Goldilock’s friends, Yogi, and Baloo.
You could say: “Hey, let’s walk the two kilometres to the shops, it will save 500 grams of CO2.” The benefit seems a bit theoretical. No-one knows what 500 grams of CO2 look like, smell like, feel like. And no-one has a clue what impact it has.
Would it help to say: “Hey, let’s walk the two kilometres to the shops, it will save a bit of a polar bear.” It might not be true (it might be too late), but it’s much more thought provoking than talk of a chemical reaction we don’t understand. And provoking thought can lead to change in behaviour.
Assume it takes another fifty years for the polar bears to die out. Average life-span of a polar bear is about twenty years. Perhaps over the next fifty years a total of fifty thousand polar bears will exist before being wiped out by drowning. Assume the average weight of those polar bears will be 200 kg. This means that there will be about 10 billion grams of polar bear. During that time GHG emissions might average seven billion a year, over fifty years, that’s 350 billion tonnes CO2e. So, still working very approximately, one tonne of CO2e is about thirty milligrams of polar bear. A more sophisticated mathematician or climate scientist can probably give us a better figure. But let’s stick with 30 mg per tonne of CO2. What weighs 30 mg? Perhaps one of those amazing hairs on the polar bear which is actually a hollow tube which captures the sun’s rays like a fibre-optic cable and carries the energy into the animal’s skin.
So now instead of saying a MWh of coal-fired power emits a tonne of CO2, we can say that it shaves a polar bear a little bit, preparing him for drowning. The amount is quite small because there are not so many polar bears anyway, but don’t forget at the same time there are thousands of other species we are killing with the same CO2. It might be a small number but it’s still more tangible. It’s much more like hurting ourselves.
Bring on the campaign: Pictures of polar bears on light switches, on our cars, on the shower, on the DVD, on the aeroplane seat, just to remind us of what we are doing. Perhaps it’s time for the WWF’s Panda to make way for its northern cousin.