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The political ecology of polar bear conservation: a circumpolar policy trainwreck

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Polar bears were one of the first globally-recognized icons in public discourse about climate change. Unfortunately for the aims of those deploying the bears as a symbol, they haven’t died off at the rates previously predicted and have not become an effective political lever to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, nation-states have indulged in “fig-leaf” policies intended to ameliorate political pressure while avoiding dealing with the underlying issue of climate change. Consequently, polar bear conservation policies have not so far resulted in any biologically meaningful conservation outcomes. Scientists and conservation advocates have faced considerable difficulty reconciling the emerging awareness of biophysical complexity and context-specificity in polar bears’ responses to a warming Arctic with the simplistic narrative more commonly promoted. Taken together, these interacting processes have tended to marginalize Arctic Indigenous Peoples and their knowledge and exacerbate political-economic and cultural divides. As the Arctic continues to warm, nonlinear impacts such as ecological regime shifts are underway and abrupt habitat loss for entire bear populations is possible. The concurrent drawdown of social capital from conflicts over polar bears makes collaborative effort for conserving polar bears and their habitat increasingly unlikely, despite being more necessary than ever.

This talk is part of the Political Ecology Group meetings series.

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