Two years ago I had the chance to travel to the Arctic with Muhtar Kent, the Chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, to see polar bears. For nearly 90 years, Coca-Cola has associated the iconic animal with its holiday advertising and products. We work with Coca-Cola on several sustainability initiatives and wanted to see the impacts of climate change in the Arctic from the vantage point of a creature that both institutions cherish.
The polar bear’s scientific name is Ursus Maritimus, which means "bear of the sea." The name hints at the fact that their entire food supply comes from the ocean. They get at it through holes in the ice. Without the ice, polar bears don’t have access to food. Polar bears live in an upside-down world.
At first glance, the Arctic landscape seems like a barren wasteland that could never support the world’s largest bear and fiercest carnivore. But if you turn the ice upside-down, you’ll find a rich marine world underneath full of tasty morsels like harbor and fur seals.
We went out early at dawn. A foot of fresh powder had fallen overnight. The ice was a bit late in freezing, and so the bears were massed up on land, waiting. Our vehicles were equipped with a back deck, a safe 10 feet above the ground. We waited and watched as a large male bear slowly materialized out of the white. His massive, recognizable figure—small head, big paws like snowshoes, and powerful legs—has evolved over thousands of years to enable him to do what he does best: hunt and swim.
He came up to us, stood on his hind legs and pounded his paws, the size of dinner plates, against the side of our vehicle. We were practically nose-to-nose. And he was hungry. It was breathtaking. Literally breathtaking.
We must have seen 20 bears that day. As night fell, we gathered with Geoff York, WWF’s polar bear scientist, and Muhtar asked him about the future of this particular southernmost population of bears. "What are they going to look like in 10 years?" he asked. After a long pause, Geoff replied, "They will be gone."
Our climate is changing, and the changes are having a profound impact on the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the global average. In fact, 2011 saw the warmest temperatures on record in the region, along with the lowest recorded volume of Arctic sea ice. Summer sea ice coverage is vanishing at a rate of 12% a decade. Polar bears now have less time on the ice to hunt and build up their fat stores, forcing them to spend more time on land. Without the ice, they are starving. It’s a simple, albeit tragic, equation: No ice, no bear.
We are watching one of the Earth’s longest-standing ecosystems transform before our eyes.
For the polar bear, a creature which has captured our hearts and minds for so long, this means displacement. Not by grizzly bears as some presume, but by the orcas, which will come hunt the food that, without ice, polar bears can no longer access.
A warming Arctic also affects weather patterns in Europe, Asia, and North America, with wide-ranging impacts on agriculture, forestry, and water supplies. Dieback of boreal forests along with thawing permafrost and methane deposits could release large quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing further to global warming. And as the ice sheets melt from the land, sea levels will rise dramatically, contributing to flooding of coastal regions that could affect more than a quarter of the world’s population.
We can expect to see shipping lanes in this region open up too, leading to a new "gold rush" for oil and minerals that were once unreachable.
But what are the costs of these changes to the services that nature provides, such as the food, biodiversity, and climate-controlling benefits of an intact Arctic ecosystem? Nature has long-term societal benefits that once lost cannot be easily replaced. Are we prepared to sacrifice these benefits for short-term gains, and wouldn’t it be more responsible to factor the costs of avoiding these future losses into our initial calculus?
For example, what value do we place on the survival of polar bears, whales, walrus, seals, and the other unique species—as well as the indigenous people—that call the Arctic home? What is the value of the Arctic’s carbon storage capacity and the healthy fisheries it supports? What is the value of the Arctic as a global climate regulator? And once we understand the full value of this place, will we have the courage to allow this wisdom to influence our decisions?
Guidance may be found in one of the oldest tools available for navigating the world around us: maps.
The first step is to map what we know. As Aldo Leopold famously said, "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." We need all of the pieces on the table to solve this puzzle.
Some countries have begun to map the Arctic as a means to determine more sustainable ways of using what we need and saving what we cherish. Norway, for example, established a plan to govern offshore activities that is designed to incorporate scientific data into decision making, and to reasonably and responsibly balance sometimes competing priorities of commercial development and environmental preservation. It has helped move shipping lanes away from vulnerable ecosystems; to identify areas where oil and gas exploration and development should, and should not, occur; and to determine sensitive fishing areas that should be closed seasonally to allow fish populations to thrive.
The Norwegian plan offers a vision for managing the Arctic and all natural systems on the planet. This type of planning enables us to know the trade-offs, to make smart choices, to understand the consequences of the actions we take, and to manage risks accordingly.
During my Arctic trip with Muhtar, we came to the realization that something needed to be done to protect the polar bear’s home. At WWF, we’d already modeled where the ice is likely to remain the longest in the face of climate change. Through the Arctic Home program with Coke, we’re highlighting the plight of polar bears and raising the necessary funds to create a "Last Ice Area" that is sustainably managed for polar bears, indigenous communities, and commercial activities.
Our world is changing rapidly and the demands on the Earth’s limited resources are growing exponentially. Adaptation is not an option; it’s a necessity. That means changing how we act, as well as the way we think about nature and its fundamental role in our lives. Because at the end of the day, nature is not just achingly beautiful, it has value.