You May Have Killed the Polar Bears: The Power of the Individual

Image Credits: Athena Lim

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Polar bears may become extinct by 2100

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The polar bear, distinguished as the iconic poster child for climate change, is predicted to go extinct by the end of the century. Belonging to the charismatic megafauna (or flagship species) of the zoological world, polar bears — along with prominently “cute” animals like pandas, otters, and sea turtles — also call attention to the plight of their equally endangered, oft-overlooked neighbours within their respective ecosystems. By placing these beloved species at the forefront of conservation and research efforts, environmentalists hope to capture the hearts of the public and spur them to become stewards of nature and wildlife.

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Most of us have heard the reports and seen the haunting images documenting moments from major climate events in history: Emaciated polar bears dragging their limp bodies across broken sheets of ice; the Amazon rainforest fires setting the night sky ablaze, expelling billows of jet-black smoke that swallowed the stars; and the staggering loss of glaciers in Antarctica. But alongside these jarring reminders lie equally insidious and less conspicuous ramifications of climate change, one of which points to the alarming rate at which the world’s biodiversity is declining in species and abundance. 

The edge of the sixth mass extinction

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The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) elucidates how devastating the repercussions of climate change are on the Earth’s ecosystems. Working with conservative estimates, scientists from 67 countries still caution that a shocking number of the world’s flora and fauna species will be driven to extinction by global warming. The current extinction rate is about 100 times faster than observed during the “Big Five” mass extinction events that have marked the Earth’s history, which begs the question: Are we plunging into a sixth mass extinction?

A mass extinction is scientifically defined as the decimation of about three-quarters of all living species over a short geological time — roughly up to 2.8 million years. Since the 1970s, we have witnessed the tremendous average loss of 68% of vertebrate species populations, and more than 35,000 species are currently classified as critically endangered. Within the 20th century alone, up to 543 land vertebrates were entirely wiped out. In light of a synthesis of similar discoveries, experts around the world have predicted that we are indeed headed towards the sixth mass extinction. But there is one thing that sets it apart from its predecessors — this time, humans are to blame for it.

Deniers may dispute that climate change and biodiversity loss are natural processes, seeing as the preceding mass extinction events struck the earth before it was inhabited by humans. However, it is discerning that human activity has drastically accelerated the rate of extinction we are grappling with today. Studies have also revealed that many extinct species would have endured 800 to 10,000 more years in the absence of human interference. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been the main driver of climate change and environmental degradation: deforestation, ocean acidification, over-hunting, and the pollution of ecosystems.

The impacts of climate change on biodiversity

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The spike in global temperatures has brought about drastic changes in rainfall patterns and extreme weather events. If we continue on this trajectory, there will be grave repercussions on biodiversity and ecosystem services. In 2018, the IPCC warned that coral reefs are estimated to decline by a further 70% to 90% if the Earth warms 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and by more than 99% if they hit 2°C. 

For instance, Canada’s deadly, record-breaking heat wave in 2021 most likely accounted for the deaths of more than 1 billion marine animals along its Pacific coast, as attested by Christopher Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia. In The Guardian, he recounts the experience of being unable to avoid “stepping on dead animals while walking around” on the shore. The mass death of shellfish — on top of sea anemones, rockfish, and oysters — is damaging to water quality, as mussels and clams have a filtering effect on the ocean. Mussels also help eelgrass beds receive sunlight and each square meter of mussel bed houses up to a hundred species of organisms. This speaks to the catastrophe of the loss caused by this disaster alone.

Biodiversity underpins the health of our ecosystems, which in turn affects human communities’ access to resources such as clean water, food, and fuel sources. Moreover, with its remarkable contributions to medical and pharmacological breakthroughs, humanity is driven towards discovering new treatments for diseases and illnesses. The World Health Organisation reports that 11% of the world’s “essential medicines” originate from flowering plants. For instance, medicine used to treat cancer and heart disease is derived from plants and fungi. Undeniably, biodiversity loss would have disastrous impacts on human health, livelihoods, and income.

Becoming a steward for the environment

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With the cataclysmic loss of biodiversity and the world’s collective failure in meeting conservation targets, there clearly remains a great deal to be done — even on a local (and individual) level. Many Singaporeans bear the misconception that our little red dot is too small to house a significant variety of biodiversity and that, therefore, the need for local conservation is undermined. However, according to NParks, we are home to more than 390 species of birds and no less than 2,100 native vascular plants, of which more than 1,500 species are classified as extant in Singapore. 

“The fact that many of us are unaware of how rich our biodiversity is shows how infrequently we immerse ourselves in nature,” says Mr N. Sivasothi, Senior Lecturer at NUS Biological Sciences, who is a passionate educator, activist, and prominent face in the environment scene. “This is because we’re all so caught up in running the rat race here in Singapore.”

He emphasises the importance of education outreach and public engagement in empowering Singaporeans to advocate for the cause. As such, simple and small-scale events like nature walks and heritage trails organised by conservation groups endeavour to awaken the biophilia in individuals and sow the seeds for us to rediscover our love for nature and its benefits. (A wealth of research has also revealed that biophilic design in hospitals has positive impacts on human health and well-being.) 

“This exposure to their natural surroundings also allows individuals to learn new things about our heritage that fall outside of classroom knowledge, becoming ingrained as little reminders that might pique an interest in nature,” Mr Sivasothi observes. “It is important to start conversations and get people talking about these issues.”

When it comes to mitigating the consequences of climate change and defending nature, it ultimately boils down to the need for governments and corporations — and, to a smaller degree, individuals like ourselves — to cut down on our carbon emissions. Since most individuals do not hold the power to rewrite global policies, where do we fit into the bigger picture?

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Indeed, businesses and governments have the authority to implement legislation that would hold corporate polluters accountable for their actions; focusing on personal responsibility alone conveniently allows these corporations to skirt that accountability. However, the binary of “personal action versus political action” may perhaps be counter-productive, as the damage inflicted upon the earth is cumulative — we need to push for systemic change while still advocating for personal responsibility.

The climate crisis is a profoundly unfair one that widens the chasm between the rich and the poor: The most impoverished and vulnerable countries have contributed the least to global warming, and yet their people bear the brunt of its cascading impacts, like the brutal droughts, the unrelenting heat waves, and the supercharged storms that sweep away their homes and destroy their livelihoods. As young people fortunate enough to live in a developed country like Singapore, the effects of climate change are much less salient, but it is not a problem for the future — now is the time to strive for change. 

While we might feel powerless in the face of our eco-anxiety and the seemingly infinitesimal consequences of individual actions in the grand scheme of things, it becomes less daunting to zero in on improving your own lifestyle rather than ruminating on what those around you are or aren’t doing. As consumers, we do have the power to dictate markets and affect the way goods are produced, and we can push for more producer responsibility schemes such as the Extended Producer Responsibility regulations.

Photo: Antoine Giret (Unsplash)     

For those of us who can afford to, we could work towards changing our living and consumption habits for the greater good (without guilting others about what they are unable to do). This may include consciously shopping from sustainable brands, investing in energy-saving appliances, using less plastic, and pausing for a moment to consider if you really must purchase everything in your latest Shopee clothing haul

Furthermore, personal action plays a pivotal role in raising the importance of these issues to corporations and policymakers. For instance, we owe the preservation of Chek Jawa to the relentless petitioning from the public and nature groups to save it from land reclamation in 2001. The result was a rare policy U-turn in Singapore, attesting to the power of the people and the cumulative impact of small, individual efforts.

We are rapidly running out of time, but it is not too late to safeguard a liveable future for the generations to come — at least for the time being.