Chunks of the Ilulissat Kangerlua Glacier clutter the Jakobshavn Icefjord near the town of Ilulissat, Greenland.

© Daniel J. Cox/

6/19/2017 6:40:32 AM

Beyond Paris - Passing the Climate Torch

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

Two summers ago, I joined a group of polar bear managers, scientists, and government policymakers in Ilulissat, Greenland to help coordinate international polar bear research and management efforts in the face of significant change. Topics ranged from climate change impacts, harvest, increasing development, population assessments, and human bear conflict.

As we met, we looked out to a bay filled with massive melting icebergs calved from nearby glaciers into the sea, a poignant reminder of the reality at hand.

The Arctic is warming more rapidly than the rest of the planet, with last summer’s sea ice loss reaching near record lows, followed by a winter of record-breaking low sea ice extent. The ice loss affects polar bears directly; they rely on the ice to reach their seal prey, for resting, and for breeding.

As a polar bear scientist, I care deeply about polar bears and the Arctic. But I’m also concerned about climate impacts on other wildlife and on people too, including the legacy we’ll leave for future generations.

From Low to High

Given how long I’ve worked in the Arctic and with polar bears, the recent White House decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement felt catastrophic to me, a serious blow that threatened the future for all of us.

But a curious thing happened: while my colleagues and I lamented one day, we felt hope return the next as reactions poured in from around the globe in support of the historic accord. Within a week, it was clear that what first seemed a tragedy had instead served as an energizing call to action, galvanizing support for a swift transition to a clean energy future.

Not one other nation chose to follow the U.S. in leaving the accord. Instead, country after country pledged to stay the course, with some vowing to go beyond their initial commitment.

Reaction in the U.S. was unequivocal as well, with an impressive number of cities, states, companies, and universities vowing support for the Paris accord and climate action, effectively taking the mantel of leadership from the White House.

While it has always been clear that solving the climate crisis is bigger than one organization or one country, the past two weeks have revealed how broad, powerful, and solutions-oriented our movement truly is.

In the U.S., for example, it’s clear that progress will continue with or without federal leadership:

  • More than 1,000 U.S. mayors, governors, businesses leaders, universities, and other officials have banded together to support the Paris accord as part of the “We Are Still In” campaign
  • 279 U.S. mayors have committed to advancing local climate action and to upholding the Paris climate goals. They represent 59 million Americans.
  • 12 states and Puerto Rico have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, with a goal of cutting emissions up to 28% within their states compared with 2005. They represent roughly 102 million people or about 30% of the U.S. population.
  • Governor Jerry Brown of California has emerged as an unofficial climate ambassador, traveling to China where he forged green energy agreements and launched a California-Beijing clean tech fund.
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged up to $15 million to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, filling an anticipated U.S. shortfall.

And the good news extends beyond U.S. borders:

  • India and China are on track to greatly exceed their Paris climate pledges, with China pledging to invest more than $360 billion in renewables and India unveiling the world’s largest solar farm.
  • China and the E.U. have announced a new climate alliance.
  • Canada is working with U.S. cities, states, and corporations on climate issues.

In addition to continued leadership by countries beyond the U.S., individuals and business owners around the globe are taking measurable actions to address climate change locally. It’s important for each of us to become active in our own communities, making positive choices in our daily lives, voting with the climate in mind, and supporting local initiatives from bike lanes to energy efficiency standards.

In the days, weeks, and months to come, we must remember that momentum is on our side and growing by the day. Thank you for being an important part of this change. 

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