People already care about climate change – my foreign policy essay

One brisk morning in March, two years ago, I found myself at a bustling diner in Salt Lake City sitting across the table from Steven Amstrup. Lanky and affable, he was eating a plate of fried eggs cooked just the way he liked them: with smashed yolks, as if they’d been “stomped on.”

We were in Utah to talk about climate change. As chief scientist for Polar Bears International, Amstrup was there to give a series of lectures at Brigham Young University on the threat climate change poses to conservation. My next appointment was with local decision-makers to discuss carbon pricing and free market solutions. Though we’d emailed and spoken over the phone, Amstrup and I had never met. But scientists are a naturally curious bunch, so I was eager to pick his brain in person.

Amstrup has been researching polar bears for nearly 40 years. He’s tagged and examined hundreds of individual bears and published more than 150 scientific papers, including the ones that led to polar bears being listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. I asked Amstrup jokingly how many bears he’d given mouth-to-nose resuscitation to, expecting him to laugh. Instead, he did some mental math before replying, “As many as a dozen.” And then he told me about the trip his team takes every fall to Churchill, Manitoba, to observe the bears in their natural habitat.

“Why not come see the bears for yourself?” he asked.

I wanted to go — who wouldn’t? But I hesitated. I already had a hectic schedule planned for the fall, and my focus is on how climate change affects people — real humans, in the here and now. Not only that, but I’ve often said that when the polar bear is the most visible mascot of climate change, it does the rest of us a disservice by making the issue seem remote and distant.

My reluctance must have shown on my face because Amstrup then said something that completely changed my perspective. “We care about the polar bears because they’re showing us what’s going to happen to us,” he said. “If we don’t heed their warning, we’re next.”

Read the rest of my Foreign Policy cover story, here: