Polar Bears on Thin Ice

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Feature story - 10 January, 2007
The good news is the polar bear is likely to given extra protection under US law. The bad news is its home is disappearing faster than ever. With 2007 predicted to be the warmest year on record it looks like they'll need all the protection they can get.

Polar bear on iceflow.

In December 2006 the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the polar bear as a 'threatened' species, due to the meltdown of its sea-ice habitat caused by global warming. Unfortunately it took a lawsuit by Greenpeace and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) to force the US administration to put the polar bear on the list and even now its listing is a proposal so could take another year to be made official.

But the implications of the listing go far beyond just the polar bear. Listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that US federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorised, or funded by the US government will not jeopardise the continued existence of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat.

"The United States has failed to lead the world in tackling global warming. With under five percent of the world's people, we generate more than 20 percent of the global warming pollution," said Kert Davies, Greenpeace research director. "We must start cutting greenhouse gas emissions or the Polar Bear will be pushed to the brink of extinction within our lifetime."

While the policy news for the polar bear was good, news from the Arctic was distinctly bad. What used to be the Ayles Ice Shelf has broken off from Ellesmere Island, Canada. The shelf was the size of Manhattan.

Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice. A growing body of evidence shows that the Arctic ice is vanishing much faster than previously expected. The thick multiyear ice has been shrinking eight to 10 percent per decade, with some climate models predicting that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as early as 2040. In some polar regions, the sea ice season has shortened as much as three weeks, and scientists have discovered that the polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate - losing an area the size of Colorado - more than a million square miles - in just the last year.

The polar bear and the melting of the Arctic are probably the most charismatic and dramatic indicators of our changing climate. It's going to take a lot more than the Endangered Species Act to save the polar bear and stop dangerous global warming.

While the talk about taking action to tackle global warming increased in 2006, there was still too much talk and too little action from world leaders.

Carbon up, temperature up

Carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest cause of global warming, are now rising at more than 2 percent a year. The longer measures to reduce carbon emissions are postponed the more drastic those measures will need to be.

As surely as carbon emissions are rising so are global temperatures. It has already been predicted by the UK Met Office that 2007 is likely to be one of the warmest years on record. This is partly due to El Nino and also due to increasing carbon emissions.

What's needed in 2007 is action -- from governments, corporations, but from all of us as well -- to cut carbon emissions and slow rising temperatures.

Next time you leave a light burning unnecessarily, think about the polar bears.  The next time you buy a product, look at its energy efficiency and think about the polar bears. And next time a politician isn't crystal clear that the planet has a problem that needs fixing, vote with your paw.

Take Action

Give the polar bears a helping hand

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