While it’s not a normal activity of mine, this weekend I had the unique opportunity to wear a polar bear costume and wave at people.
Maybe some explanation is in order. One of my cousins works for an organization called Alaska Wilderness League, which is the only Washington, D.C.-based environmental non-profit dedicated exclusively to protecting Alaska’s wild land. Ever since I spent a summer hiking around Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range, I’ve been a huge fan of Alaska’s natural landscape and the people who live there. I feel a personal connection with this organization’s struggle to “keep Alaska wild.”
So when my cousin asked if I could be the polar bear mascot for the Canoecopia outdoor recreation expo, I had to say yes. Canoecopia brings together Madison’s outdoor community for a weekend of talks on wild places to go and wild things to do there. Canoecopia is Madison’s outdoor community converging in full force on the Alliant Energy Center, and on Saturday I was there wearing a polar bear costume that must have been designed with the intent to simulate the poor vision and lack of thermal regulation that polar bears suffer from.
Overheating on a balmy spring day in Wisconsin was a window into the way polar bears are struggling to subsist in a rapidly changing Arctic climate. Being a human in a polar bear suit made me think of the polar bear’s struggle to feed itself when its hunting is severely limited due to fractured Arctic ice sheets.
Climate change might have been a controversial political issue for some time, but there isn’t much of a controversy anymore. To those who still doubt the “existence of climate change” — there was no winter in Wisconsin this year. In the words of a true climate change non-believer, Bill O’Reilly, “You can’t explain that!” The mildness of this winter didn’t just make weather a greater cause for small-talk than it normally is, but also broke every record in the weather almanac archives. If mean temperature between November and February were plotted from year to year, 2011-2012 would look like a singularity. To doubt global climate change, given the body of evidence that exists today, is to doubt inductive reasoning — which is the foundation for empirical science.
Wisconsin has a strong history of environmental activism, but today it faces a long list of environmental dilemmas — inadequate regulation of coal burning power plants, fracking and wetland deregulation, to name a few. The most recent victory for environmentalism in Wisconsin was that a bill that would streamline the permit process for mining in the state failed to pass in the Senate, thanks to Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who was the swing vote that voted against the bill. As a result, the president of Gogebic Taconite said the company is withdrawing its plans to start an iron mine in northern Wisconsin, which would have included a massive 1,000-foot deep, four mile-long open, terraced pit, and would have polluted the Bad River watershed with sulfide runoff. Critics are upset that the state lost an additional 700 jobs, but there are better ways to create 700 jobs that involve less initial investment and don’t destroy the natural landscape of an entire county.
Sen. Schultz said, “I would love to vote for a responsible mining bill.” Really, no environmentally responsible mining bill is possible, because all such bills involve a compromise between the mineral and economic needs of the present and a sustainable environmental policy for the future. What is clear is that no reliance on drilling or mining is sustainable. These processes irreversibly alter the natural environment in one way or another, be it acid runoff or greenhouse gas, and their days are numbered.
The plight of the polar bear is not all that interesting in and of itself. Yes, polar bears are majestic creatures, and they play an important role at the top of the food chain in Arctic ecosystems, but civilization could survive without them. More importantly, the struggle of polar bears to survive in a changing climate foreshadows the struggle human society will eventually face if environmental degradation continues.