A polar bear in the willows

Photo: Jenny Wong

Speaking up for Polar Bears

By Kieran Mulvaney, Guest Contributor



30 Nov 2023

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) opens today and will run through December 12, the latest step in an ongoing journey to significantly reduce the international community’s fossil fuel emissions. Polar Bears International will be following proceedings remotely; last year, PBI attended COP27 in Egypt, and also took part for several years before that, part of an effort to expand our work beyond research, education, and conservation and into the policy sphere.

Here, Emily Ringer, Polar Bears International’s director of policy and advocacy, discusses PBI’s increased involvement in such international gatherings and how they ultimately reinforce the importance of individual and grassroots action.

Q: It seems that, outside of such meetings as the Polar Bear Range States and the Polar Bear Specialist Group, where PBI would be expected to have some kind of presence, attending these meetings is a fairly new phenomenon for Polar Bears International. Is that so, and if so, what is the thinking behind it?

We’ve always appreciated the role that policy and advocacy plays in polar bear conservation, but it wasn't necessarily one of our key pillars as we were very focused on research and education. But as those pieces have become well established, we wanted to invest more in these meetings because they are places where people have important conversations about all the cross-sectional issues that impact the Arctic, of which polar bears are just one. And we wanted to make sure that we are a part of those conversations and that we are building relationships and opportunities for collaboration in the future.

We try to be very thoughtful about which meetings we attend, because of course there is a climate impact from traveling to these meetings. Zoom is amazing, and we do as much work virtually as we can, but it's not the same as sitting across from somebody and having a conversation over coffee. I think about relationships with people I've emailed with for years that have just absolutely skyrocketed because I got to meet them in person, and now we feel we understand and are able to support each other's work more. So sometimes, there's a lot of value in physically being there.

Emily Ringer at the 2023 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Q: In October, you were in Reykjavik for the Arctic Circle Assembly. This has become a huge gathering, but it focuses far more on governance and geopolitics in the Arctic than on biodiversity. Was that in fact a major reason for attending?

I think that it’s increasingly important when we're dealing with issues like climate change, which are so expansive and cut across multiple sectors, to recognize that we can't really solve biodiversity problems solely by talking to other people that work in biodiversity. And so it's important to build those relationships and find those intersections because it really will take a cross-sectoral approach to solve things like climate change and biodiversity loss.

I was excited to go to the Arctic Circle Assembly and see what that space looks like and how some of these other issues, like national security, affect regional communities and intersect with our work. Take shipping, for example. There's a lot happening in the Arctic, especially as the sea ice is melting and pathways are opening up more, and that's going to impact polar bears, if not directly then certainly indirectly.

Q: Subsequently, you were a virtual attendee at a meeting that is more obviously in PBI’s wheelhouse: the Polar Bear Range States meeting. What were the big takeaways from this?

This is an important space for us to be in, much more obviously so than some others, because this is where the five countries where polar bears are found (United States, Canada, Russia, Norway (Svalbard), and Denmark (Greenland) talk about their conservation management plans. And observers and observer organizations such as Polar Bears International play a big role in that because there are many organizations and local communities that are also contributing to polar bear conservation. So, it's a benefit to all that that space is open so as much knowledge as possible can be exchanged and collaborations can be formed.

What was interesting about this meeting is that the theme was Indigenous knowledge, communities, and people. This was an intentional attempt to address the imbalance of knowledge systems that historically have been shared, and really focus on Indigenous knowledge about polar bears. And it was truly amazing. I would say every single presentation, even those that weren't explicitly about sharing Indigenous knowledge, connected to Indigenous knowledge in some way, shape, or form, talking about ways to incorporate it more—and talking about obstacles to that incorporation.

Highlights from Emily Ringer's COP27 trip in Egypt.

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Highlights from Emily Ringer's COP27 trip in Egypt.

Q: Which brings us to the biggest of them all, the conference that addresses climate change solely and directly: the climate COP. You were in Egypt for the last one and Glasgow before that; I know they are massive gatherings, but can you give us a sense of just how massive?

It’s like a ten-tier cake of events and diplomacy and negotiations. At any one time there must be a thousand events going on. Most countries have their own pavilion where they host a series of events; so do many of the organizations that attend. And then you have large plenaries that are happening simultaneously on a rolling basis, so you have 100 negotiation rooms that are full of different groups of people ironing out different elements of text. So, it's very complex and a pretty wild thing to behold. The complexity can make you feel a lack of hope, and yet conversely can also provide an abundance of it, because there are so many people in one place trying to coordinate on complex issues.

Q: Given the scale and nature of the event, does Polar Bears International have lower expectations of itself and what it can contribute than at, say, the Range States meeting or even the Arctic Circle Assembly?

I see our position there as representing the story of the polar bear and the intersection to the climate issue but also, most importantly, elevating other voices. Because there are a million different threads that feed into the climate crisis, and we don't need to be jockeying for the loudest soapbox. In the last couple of years, we’ve prioritized sharing our accreditation with Indigenous representatives from Canada and the U.S. This year we provided badges to three Indigenous leaders from Canada and one from the U.S. We also sponsored an amazing young woman who is effecting real change. She is just 21 years old and is the executive director of a nonprofit called Gen Z for Change. She frequently travels to Washington, D.C., where she sits down with powerful decision makers and shares asks for her generation. It’s been super rewarding to use our position in that space to expand our networks and elevate other voices. 

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Alongside hundreds of members of global civil society, Polar Bears International delegates participated in the People's Plenary at COP27—where groups of people, rather than nation-states, make their declarations. Here, Indigenous peoples, the women and gender constituency, youth, and others shared their commitments and visions for a just climate future.

Q: There is always a lot of noise around these COPs. But what do you think? Are we making progress because of them? Are they the right forums to effect change?

They definitely don't achieve as much as they could. But it is really, really important that internationally, we're having conversations about climate change, and what each country's contribution is to that, and how we're going to collaborate on reducing emissions. But it's also important to remember that at these COPs, the decisions are just decisions; they're not actual policies, they're not actual action. They set goals to be met, but the substance then happens at home, in individual countries. 

The United States, for example, may agree to a certain reduction in its emissions at a COP. But that starts a discussion along the lines of, “Okay, well, what federal, what state, what local policy can we implement so that we can meet these goals we committed to on an international level.” The meat of the work is done closer to home. And I think that's a lot more helpful, because we all probably have more ability to influence our local politics than we do the U.N.’s.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer who has written extensively about polar bears and the Arctic for publications including National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. A native of Bristol, England, he lives in Bristol, Vermont.