Monday, November 30, 2015

COP 21: the bear necessities of life

It's a sobering, eye-swiveling thought when you consider that, out of the 3.5 billion years there has been life on our planet, the human race - in its anatomically modern form - has only been around for 200,000 years.

More sobering is that mankind's industrial interaction with the planet has only taken place over the last 250 years or so. Even more sobering still, then, when you consider the damage it has done in that relative blink of the eye of Earth's 4.5 billion-year existence.

Remarkably, as many as 99% of all the lifeforms believed to have existed have become extinct, the consequence, I suppose of natural events and natural selection over the last 3.5 billion years. So, as one tiny percentage of the one percent that has survived, our responsibility is huge. Or perhaps we are destined for extinction too?

Human development can be directly blamed for the loss of habit of thousands of species of animals, forcing some into extinction, while others have been pushed closer to inevitable encounters with mankind that they weren't designed for - be it the poor brown bear who, fatally, found himself in a Russian shopping mall last month, or the mountain lions of the American West which invariably come off worse as urban sprawl continues.

And then there is the secondary effect of human development: climate change. Deniers and ardent contrarians like to believe that climate change is a natural phenomena, that it has happened before, and that global warming is a cyclical event. We are, they say, currently in "upcycle".

Tell that, then, to the polar bear. The bear family evolved out of other mammalian species 38 million years ago, with divisions between the black and the polar breeds occurring more than four million years ago. And yet recent, measurable climate change and the erosion of the Arctic ice pack polar bears rely on for food outside hibernation months, could see these magnificent animals - the planet's largest land mammals - disappear for good in a matter of decades.

I know this sounds like tree hugging, hair-shirted environmentalist (with the emphasis on mentalist...) dogma, but the facts and the truth speak for themselves. For example, an exhaustive, five-year study by the US Geological Survey found that Alaska's Arctic shoreline has eroded at average rate of 1.4 meters per year since the mid-20th century, with the thawing permafrost and gradually warming waters believed to be the likely cause...and both animal and human life the likely victim.

Sea ice is disappearing from Arctic waters at an unprecedented rate — more rapidly than predicted by the most extreme projections in the most recent assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Indeed, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with the ice that reflects 60% of the sun's rays disappearing, a vicious circle of rising sea levels and even less sea ice, adding further to global warming. The thickness of the Arctic icecap halved in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, as well as shrunk by 30% in terms of area. That is not a change over the course of millennia - that's a disappearance measurable in terms of a portion of my lifetime.

"Boo-hoo", snark the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, sarcastically, as they make throwaway japes about how brer ursidae is not in the least bit their concern when arguing the benefits of diesel over petrol, or how quickly the latest Ferrari will get from 0-60. However, the Clarkson school of cynicism - that's his media persona, and it sells newspapers, magazines and television shows - is not the issue. We are, collectively. Our behaviour, and our tolerance of our governments' behaviour.

It's the proprietary interests that prevent natural, renewable energy sources from being invested in; it's the refusal to see energy efficiency as a meaningful condition to reverse climate change; it's about politicians putting money where their often sizeable mouths are.

It's about the staggering arrogance that any human has to assume its warped interpretation of "survival of the fittest" superiority over a species that has been around for millions of years longer than our own. A species with every right to stay around longer without human ignorance and all the things climate change can be blamed on being the cause of its demise.

Apex predators are magnificent beasts. The Great White Shark looks like a fighter jet, the lion and tiger are some of nature's most beautiful creations, and bears are, well just brilliant animals. None of these I would want to encounter close up, of course, but that doesn't mean that they should be denied their right to exist because of the inability, or unwillingness, or just plain stupidity of the planet's most intelligent species to do something about it. When clearly we can.

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