Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Shaping Policy for the Planet and Polar Bears

By Alex Shahbazi, Guest Contributor



04 Apr 2024

The concept of “policy” can be confusing. I mean, sure, laws are policies, we all know that, right? But my job has a policy for time off, is that similar? Or, wait, I have insurance policies, are those the same kind of thing? What even is policy?!

Policies are any plans, rules, or sets of guidelines that are agreed upon by a group of people (such as governments, businesses, schools, and more). They are the hidden structures behind our everyday world. A casual stroll through your neighborhood reveals policy in action. The roads, parks, public transit, and more are all controlled by policy. Policies are everywhere. Even something as basic as a restaurant requiring employees to wash their hands before each shift is an example of a policy. If it can be written down and enforced, then odds are it’s a policy.

What is environmental policy?

Put simply, environmental policy is any policy that considers the impact of human activities on the environment. Like all types of policy, environmental policy is found everywhere and comes in all shapes and sizes. Fines for littering are a type of environmental policy. So too are cities requiring their buses to be electric. Incentives for solar panels, regulating fishing through permits, and establishing protected areas are all also environmental policies. And those are just governmental examples. A business’s energy savings plan with requirements like installing energy-efficient windows is an environmental policy. Schools instructing their cafeterias to limit food waste and compost leftovers is another one. Environmental policy can even be as simple as a store only using reusable bags.

But pretty much any policy can become an environmental one. If a city wants to improve rush hour traffic, it can expand public transit instead of adding an extra lane of highway. If a school wants to save money, it can create energy-saving guidelines that require turning the lights off in hallways and sports facilities at night. If a state or province wants to boost tourism and recreation, it can establish parks and nature reserves that also protect wildlife habitat. The possibilities are endless.

What can I do?

Environmental policies are a huge lever in shaping the world around us. It’s natural to wonder, then, what you can do to influence them.

Voting is an incredibly powerful way to influence policy. And it’s not just limited to choosing your president or prime minister. Congresspeople and members of parliament set the laws of nations, states, and provinces. Mayors, on the other hand, determine policies in cities and towns. Researching what candidates’ stances are on environmental issues important to you and then voting for who promises to develop policies you support is a meaningful way to drive the change you want to see.

But voting is only one way among many. Calling or writing to your representatives allows your voice to be heard on statewide, provincial, and national scales. Attending city council meetings or submitting public comments to county commissioners allows you to act more locally. And it doesn’t stop with governments. 

Maybe you want to see your homeowner's association reduce water consumption for lawn maintenance. Or perhaps you’d like your employer to offer incentives for biking or taking public transit. You might even hope for local businesses to agree to stop using single-use plastics. As people living in society, we are impacted by the policies of our governments and the organizations in our communities. Talking directly to those in charge of those organizations is the best way to start advocating for the environment. And getting others to join you makes an even bigger impact: the more the merrier!

Photo: Marissa Krouse / Polar Bears International

Policy and polar bears

Policy is pivotal for protecting polar bears. Large-scale governmental policies like the U.S.’s Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act are crucial laws for polar bear conservation. These policies, and others like them, prohibit actions that harm polar bears like destroying essential habitat, disturbing dens, and, in most cases, hunting. In regions where polar bears live alongside humans, regional and local policies are also essential. These can include requiring polar bear-safe garbage cans and making non-harmful deterrents available.

But the polar bears’ greatest threat is climate change: they need sea ice to survive, sea ice which is disappearing as carbon emissions warm the Arctic. Policies that reduce carbon emissions, then, are policies that benefit polar bears. So, voting for candidates who will support policies for reducing carbon emissions is vital. 

And each ounce of carbon counts. Each city that transitions its buses from gas-powered to electric, every office building that develops an energy efficiency plan, and any cafeteria that creates sustainable food guidelines for reducing food waste and offering more plant-based options helps polar bears. That means, wherever you live, you can help create policies for polar bears.

Alex Shahbazi is an environmental policy, programs, & research consultant. He is an avid conservationist, writer, and advocate. Alex currently helps manage the Study of Environmental Arctic Change, an Arctic co-production research program, and assists Polar Bears International in their policy and advocacy work.