It's time to fire the polar bear

Undeniable climate change facts
Undeniable climate change facts

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Story highlights

  • Erica Dingman: The rate of climate change is largely dependent on the action we take to address it
  • To drive a quicker response, we should highlight more stories of people -- not wildlife -- who are adversely affected by its impact

Erica Dingman is a Fellow at the World Policy Institute and Director of the Arctic in Context initiative. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)When the public first saw the striking image of a polar bear roaming the Arctic ice, guiding her cub across a seemingly pristine white North, it drew attention to the Arctic that had been lacking since the end of the Cold War. It was the brainchild of the World Wildlife Fund, in partnership with a Coca-Cola ad campaign, that began in 2011.

In subsequent years, the polar bear has grown as a symbol of climate change, the extremes of which are evident in the Arctic. As a researcher of Arctic issues, I had a particular appreciation for this increased attention. When talking to others about the problem myself, I've often felt that the response was an implicit "who cares?" What the iconic polar bear brought to bare (pun intended) were the overwhelming changes impacting the Arctic environment.
    Erica Dingman
    Even though the intent of the WWF polar bear campaign was right, it also diverted attention away from the people who live in the Arctic and the larger implications of what Arctic warming means to people throughout the world. First and foremost, around 4 million indigenous peoples living in northern Canada and Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Norway, call the Arctic home. Their lives are directly affected by climate change.
    Perhaps the best way to make sure that those individuals living in the Arctic and elsewhere get the attention they deserve is to share their stories with the general public.
    While the last few days have been awash with media headlines making pronouncements of tremendous changes to our natural environment, it's important that this issue's direct impact on people remain central to the international dialogue.
    As the Arctic warms, the ice thins earlier, creating dangerous conditions for hunters to access the foods central to the traditions of many indigenous people like the Inuit. "Food is a lifeline to the community," noted one of the 146 authors of the 2015 Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska report on food security. Indeed, food is the cornerstone of Inuit culture, identity, health and well-being.
    But indigenous communities aren't the only people under threat from climate change. Rising sea levels leave us vulnerable to the threat of massive flooding hitting across the US and around the world. A recent National Geographic headline read: "Sea level rise will flood hundreds of cities in the near future." The UK's Independent captured public attention with the piece, "'Catastrophic Collapse' of West Antarctic ice sheet could raise global sea levels by three metres, warn scientists."
    And yet, despite this very real and near danger, the lead statement in a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, reads "Climate change often seems a distant threat. It is difficult to picture how it will affect or alter our lives."
    Indeed, the findings of this UCS report are significant. If preventative measures are not taken, 170 US coastal communities will experience a "threshold of sea level rise-induced flooding," within the next 20 years. Along the West Coast from Washington to California, on the East Coast from Maine to the tip of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the southern tip of Texas, residents of rural communities are particularly vulnerable. An increasing number of families may be required to think about moving elsewhere as their homes become sites of regular flooding and business are forced to close.
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    High-density cities such as New York will have to make tough decisions over the course of this century. In New York City, the sea level has risen by at least a foot since 1900 and is projected to rise another 18 to 50 inches by 2100. Drinking water, sewage, transportation, communication and energy infrastructure are all potentially under threat if measures are not taken to protect the shorelines and city infrastructure.
    In a worst-case scenario, according to the UCS report, emissions continue to rise, ice sheets melt faster and global sea level rise reaches 6.6 feet. In a best-case scenario, collective global emissions are limited to less than 2 degrees Celsius in accordance with the Paris climate accord. Ice loss is substantially diminished and chronic flooding largely abates. It is unlikely that either of the scenarios will come to pass, but the chances of reaching the best-case scenario is even more remote as a result of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
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    The Inuit people have been warning us of the reality of global warming for decades. But whether Inuit, a resident of a coastal community or elsewhere, let's aim for collective action on climate change to preserve the communities we call home.
    Images such as the polar bear roaming fragmented ice are an important symbol of the effects of global warming. But images of people must drive the conversation to motivate change.
    Correction: This piece mistakenly stated the sea level had risen by at least a foot since 1990. It has been corrected to reflect the true date -- 1900.