9/24/2014 12:51:38 AM

Why I Marched

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation 

I have never participated in a protest. I have never marched for a cause at a public event. Prior to September 19, I had never been to New York City. But I have always held firm to the notion that "the power is in the people." That we, individually and when we come together, can and do make a difference in this world we share. From issues of social to environmental justice, history has shown time and time again that it is only these individual and collective actions, these moments in time, that spark the fires of social evolution.

One day can change everything, and one person can make a difference.

I worked as a biologist in Alaska, and now more broadly in the Arctic, for over 20 years. Some of these experiences were as an employee with the U.S. government, some as an academic, and later as a scientific advisor to wildlife conservation organizations. Through these experiences, through these years, I have actually seen the impacts from our warming world. I have seen summer sea ice disappear from the north coast of Alaska: from the 1990s, when it was rarely more than a few miles from shore, to today, where it is typically 300-400 miles from shore. I have seen the coastal erosion that comes with these changes in sea ice cover and the impacts it has on coastal communities. I have seen how the changes in sea ice formation and melt can have profound impacts on the availability of local wildlife for northern people who rely on these renewable resources for food.

For the last 17 years I have been fortunate to focus on one specific aspect of the Arctic—polar bears—both as part of the USGS Polar Bear Research Team in Alaska, as the lead on Polar Bear Conservation for WWF, and now as the Director of Conservation for Polar Bears International. In those roles, I've spent countless hours on or flying above the sea ice—out in polar bear habitat. I've handled hundreds of great white bears and many cubs as well. I've been part of the teams of researchers that are documenting changes both to the physical habitat and to the bears themselves: decreasing condition, lower reproductive success, and ultimately declining trends in population size.

Over the past six years working in the policy/science interface as part of a nonprofit, I have spoken directly, or indirectly, to thousands of people about polar bears, the threats they face, and specifically about climate change. Having the great fortune to study such an iconic animal in the wild, I, like many before me, felt like I owed them something in return. Seeing the impact of our human activities on the bears and their sea ice habitat, I felt I owed them my energy and my voice to mitigate or eliminate the worst of those threats.

In that same period of time, I have also seen cause for hope: huge tracts of wilderness across Arctic countries, healthy polar bear populations in some regions, the power of nature to surprise us, the resilience of northern communities, and people across sectors and nationalities that deeply care about the Arctic and those who call it home.

So why did I join the People's Climate March? First, I marched for the polar bears and for the Arctic—a place that has always held my respect and fascination. But I also marched for myself, for my wife, for my home in Bozeman, Montana, and I marched for you. I marched for my nieces and nephews, your children too, and those yet to come—because climate change is and will impact us all in ways understood and some barely imagined. We are indeed all connected, and while impacts of a warming planet will vary across regions and over time, they are predicted to have profound implications for us all. Climate change is what we are handing down to future generations, this is our global inheritance—unless we act.

Report after report on topics ranging from the Arctic to global sea level rise, from wildfires to ocean acidification, storm severity, drought, food, and freshwater security, and even national security all come to the same conclusions. Our planet is warming at a rate that is unprecedented in the historical record, release of greenhouse gases from human activities are driving this rapid change, and the impact of this warming, if unchecked, will fundamentally disrupt the earth we have known since our own evolution.

However—like the discovery of impacts from chemicals such as DDT and PCBs in the 1970s, or that of ozone damage in the 1980s, we have the knowledge and a suite of tools to begin addressing the problem. We also have extraordinary creativity and innovation we can apply to reverse these trends and stabilize or even begin to reverse the warming, while decreasing harmful pollution and creating new jobs.

What we lack is the political will for change, and that is why nearly 400,000 people marched in New York City on September 21, 2014- to send a clear message to world leaders who gathered for the United Nations General Assembly: we not only expect leadership and action on climate- we demand it, and in many countries we also vote. There is no time left to waste.

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