The Polar Bears Are Dying
by Andrea Legaspi (@andreaalegaspi)
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Since the conversation on climate change started getting traction, this visual on the polar ice caps melting and leaving bears stuck and starving has been the most popular. Understandably so, the idea of the coldest part of the world melting is a striking image if only for the sheer polarity. It is perhaps the lack of such visual contrast that leaves people like us, those of the tropics, slightly more detached from the effects of rising temperatures. It is easier to avoid the impending doom of climate emergency when we’re surrounded by coconut trees and white sand beaches that look better as an Instagram post on hotter days.
How do Filipinos even begin to think of climate change when the poster child for such a contentious issue is the polar bear – quite frankly an animal you would never associate with the Philippines. The polar bear has been used in most, if not all, public arguments for climate change action – from the conventional (Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth) to the controversial (Coca-Cola’s Polar Bear campaign).
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t care about the polar bears. Every time I think about Planet Earth, the David Attenborough docuseries, the scene that always comes to mind is the one of polar bear mothers protecting their cubs from melting ice. I, like many who have seen it, get teary-eyed every time. But to upend your lifestyle for animals you’ve only seen in picture books and television screens? I know very few people who would be so dedicated to arctic mammals. So why is it that when we discuss the environment and the effects that climate change has on it, we seem to narrow our perspective on endangered wildlife, hardly ever taking into consideration that human beings are very much part of the ecosystem too? Why do we turn our gaze to places so far away from our home that we can only access them through our screens?
The cover photo of this piece is a reference to these climate change posters used by leading environmental organizations.
In the communities I visit, mothers also risk their lives to protect their young more often than you can imagine. They cross raging rivers with children and belongings in tow, in search for higher ground when heavy rains hit. Some of them have to abandon houses their husbands built the year before, carrying with them only the most essential of possessions, if their hands even allow it. With the houses they abandoned, crops they spent months planting and waiting to grow also get destroyed, along with a steady livelihood they once dreamed of relying on. As the weather gets more erratic, so do the stability of people’s lives who are so intertwined with nature and its changes.
During the season without rain, the heat welcomes itself boldly. Water sources become dry, crops (as well as people) parched, and the land too arid for efficient planting. There are no longer raging rivers to cross during this season but the people also become more at risk of health conditions and diseases that breed well in the heat. A bigger problem for people who live so far from medical facilities and don’t have the luxury of owning automotive vehicles.
People will look at indigenous communities like the Aetas of Yangil and conclude that their main problem is monetary poverty. While that is true to some extent, we also need to realise how much natural resources they can have at their disposal but are unable to maximise because of the effects of climate change. Is their poverty simply monetary or is it also environmental? Whatever season it is in the Philippines, dry or wet, communities like these are dealt an unfortunate hand. Ironic how it’s the people who have become so attuned to the rules and patterns of nature that are most trumped by its turbulence.
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We’re thousands of miles away from polar bears we’ve been told to save for the last decade, but communities like the Aetas are right in our backyard. Nobody is talking about them but that doesn’t mean the effects of climate change on them are not real. We can watch a hundred documentaries about the phenomenon but nothing will beat going outdoors and meeting the people who are most connected to it first-hand.
I hope the next time we talk about climate change, we also talk about the people. Not about the inconveniences it gives to individuals like you and me, but the rife and struggle it brings to the bigger majority of Filipinos who live outside of megacities and depend on Nature and its grace.
Maybe then, nobody will dismiss you with a joke about the polar bears. Maybe then, they will listen. Maybe then, we can collectively consider that climate change is not a distant problem. That it hits close to home much more than we ever thought it did.