What polar bears in a Russian apartment block reveal about the climate crisis

polar bears in arctic russia are losing their sea-ice habitat
Polar bears in Arctic Russia are losing their sea-ice habitat. Photograph: All Canada Photos/Alamy

Arctic bears are being driven off their normal migration routes and into human habitation. We should feel pity – and fear

— Polar bears prowling around a children’s playground. Polar bears lumbering along the corridors of apartment blocks and offices. Polar bears descending on a sleepy Russian town in their dozens.

To state the obvious: polar bears should not be wandering into human habitation, and certainly not in these numbers. That they are doing so in Belushya Guba shows how they are being driven off their normal migration routes and hunting trails by a changing climate. This has long been predicted – with the Arctic heating twice as fast as the rest of the planet, winter temperatures are rising and the sea ice – which is the primary habitat of polar bears – is shrinking.

In this small town in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, authorities have declared a state of emergency (a reasonable precaution after spotting an unprecedented 52 polar bears). Fences have been erected around school playgrounds and locals have tried to drive them away with warning shots and explosions. All to no avail. Many residents are afraid to leave their homes. Workers are reportedly being bused to their offices in military vehicles.

No other animal symbolises global warming like the polar bear. Over the past three decades, we have grown used to images of malnourished or solitary animals cast adrift on broken ice. But this time it’s different. There is a pack instead of a solitary beast, humanity is near rather than distant and the mood is not just of pity but fear – entirely fitting for a period in which the climate crisis suddenly feels as if it is upon us rather than a future threat.

It also highlights other problems of the Anthropocene – the name that scientists have given to our geological era, which is being shaped less and less by natural forces and more and more by human behaviour.

Belushya Guba is remote but far from pristine. The nearby seas have recently seen the first commercial offshore oil development in the Arctic. Poor waste management in this region – once the site of Soviet nuclear bomb tests and still with a heavy military presence – has attracted hungry animals to dumpsites.

The bears are obviously not environment vigilantes out for revenge. Humans are everywhere. They have nowhere else to go. But many headlines talk of an “invasion” and articles debate the need for “deportation” or execution. The echo of the refugee crisis is no accident. More and more species, along with people, are being driven from their homes by climate disruption, raising the risk of conflict.

How to respond to this emergency is also shaped by the usual political divide: the right focus on the immediate threat to human individuals, while the left tries to understand the long-term global causes. But a debate about whether the bear migration should inspire fear or sympathy misses the point. The animals are losing the winter they depend on. Ultimately, so are we. We should feel sorry and afraid both for them and for us.


by Jonathan Watts | The Guardian

 

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