Yesterday I participated in a rally in Great Barrington, MA for action on global climate change organized by Step It Up. As Stockbridge Indian representative Steve Comer led a prayer at the Stockbridge Indian Burial Site, my mind wandered to the difficulty of communicating the gravity of the global warming crisis to non-scientists. One problem may be that people have trouble connecting warming temperatures to negative consequences for themselves. Indeed one of the most frequent comments I hear about global warming is "Why are our winters still so long and cold?!"
This is why I had mixed emotions about the recent articles in the popular press about global warming and polar bears. On the one hand, it does provide a great hook, a concrete way to appeal to people with a strong affinity for large, furry mammals. Unfortunately the true significance of global climate change might be lost. While the extinction of polar bears would be an unmitigated tragedy, the fact of the matter is their loss would have little effect on human economics. As Wilmers et al. points out in this month's American Naturalist, it is the highly fecund species most at risk. These are the bugs, worms and creepy-crawlies that do the heavy lifting in providing the ecosystem services our civilization is utterly dependent on. I think this argument bypasses the controversy over whether climate change is "natural" or human-induced, whereas the "Save the Polar Bears" argument might be rebutted by the "Well It's Just Part of the Natural Process" argument. One would not argue that one should not shelter from a hurricane because it is a "natural" phenomenon. I'm afraid, unless we make obvious in no uncertain terms that global warming is going to hit us squarely in the pocketbook, progress in mitigation efforts will be long in coming. Let us not forget that those that can most affect carbon dioxide emissions respond most strenuously to threats to their bottom lines.