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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2015

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On Solidarity With Polar Bears

There is something terribly poignant about an image of a polar bear skipping over melting sea ice surrounded by glassy water. It conjures up images of innocent vulnerability and latent guilt. As climate change politics once more roar up the global political agenda, the polar bear is one of many identifiable icons urging responsible action over reduction of greenhouse gases on a global scale.

Miriam Matejova offers a fascinating perspective on the machinations of environmental pressure groups and the politics of polar bear hunting in the Arctic (see “Is Global Environmental Activism Saving the Polar Bear?”). In some ways she offers similarities to the whaling disputes of past decades, when there were heated arguments over the rights of indigenous peoples to hunt whales while there was a general commercial whaling ban. In the polar bear story, the disputed battleground is more subtle. So far, no organization is proposing a ban on subsistence and customary right bear hunting. Where the trouble lies is in the shield of duplicity, seemingly used especially in Russia and China, for such hunting to be cast as cover for blatant commercial selling of pelts and other valuable slaughtered polar bear parts.

What is fascinating in her analysis is the weighing up of payoff by the environmental groups of the use of very limited campaign resources and their cash-starved budgets when costly and prolonged lobbying is in prospect. The politics of sustainability are often more realistically pragmatic than ethical. As in poaching generally and in the illegal trading of animal products, there is a fuzzy zone between investigation, which takes time and money, and lobbying for plugging the loopholes in the international agreements. Hard-pressed environmental organizations do not help their cause by disagreeing over the fundamentals and hence opening up fissures for mischievous countries to exploit.

Sometimes the science is not sufficiently robust to make the case that the polar bear is genuinely endangered. This is made more troublesome for the conservation lobbies when the prospect of climate change effects on polar bear populations is disputed and not readily provable. In legal negotiations, the lack of scientific rigor is a serious impediment to precautionary action. This exposes a flaw in the politics of sustainability science.

What we are witnessing is the tendency for proof to be offered from “outside science.” This is the science of external evidence and best-guess modeling. There is also an “inside science.” This is the arena of ethics, solidarity, cultural empathy, and precautionary best guesses. Outside science tends to eschew ethics and solidarity. Inside science thrives on it. The polar bear lobbies exhibit two conflicts. One is related to scientific evidence building. The other is related to empathy over the plight and survivability of the polar bear as a metaphor for our humanness. Tragically, it is almost impossible for a cash-limited campaigning group, fighting desperate legal and political rearguard actions, to be allowed to display its inner convictions.

Environment Magazine Welcomes the Following Members to Its Executive Editor Board

MYANNA LAHSEN is a Senior Associate Researcher in the Earth System Science Center of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE). She obtained her formal education in Denmark, France, and the United States, where she was the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a U.S. EPA “STAR” fellowship and three postdoctoral fellowships, one at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research and two at Harvard University. She also was a Lecturer on Environmental Science and Public Policy at Harvard University before moving to Brazil in 2002.

Myanna's research examines cultural and political dynamics bearing on understandings of climate change and sustainability and on associated policy processes, with special focus on Brazil and the United States. Much of her research seeks to identify and analyze often overlooked knowledge-related dynamics bearing on the possibility of societal transformations to sustainability.

Myanna has served on review and advisory panels at the U.S. National Science Foundation and as advisor to the United Nations on science-policy interface and global sustainability issues. She is advisor to Nature Climate Change and Executive Editor of WIREs Climate Change's domain on the Social Status of Climate Change Knowledge. In 2014, she convened Future Earth's Early Career Scientists Conference on Integrated Science in Vigoni, Italy, responsible for defining its 5-day scientific program on Ecosystem Health, Human Wellbeing and a Green Economy.

LINXIU ZHANG is Professor and Deputy Director at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). She is also the Managing Director of UNEP-IEMP based in Beijing ( She obtained her Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Reading in the U.K. For more than 30 years, her research has concentrated on policy relevant studies on rural development in China, particularly on poverty alleviation, environment and livelihood dynamics, rural labor market development, and rural public goods investment.

In recent years, her team has also been focusing on action research in areas of rural health, nutrition and education using rigorous impact assessments to determine effectiveness of relevant policies and interventions. She is the Co-Director of the Rural Education Action Project (REAP) jointly with Stanford University and many other partners ( She has published more than190 papers both domestically and internationally.

She has presented more than 20 policy suggestions to Central government. She received numerous awards including an “Outstanding Young Scientist” award from NSFC in 2003 and “100 Talent” award from CAS in 2007. She won one of the “Ten Most Outstanding Women in Science” awards from CAS in 2013. She received the TWAS Celso-Furtado Prize in Social Sciences for 2013. In 2014, she received the “Fudan Management Excellence Award” (the most prestigious award in management science in China). She was also elected as TWAS fellow in the same year.

RALPH HAMANN, formerly a contributing editor at Environment, is a Professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business, and he holds a Research Chair at the UCT African Climate and Development Initiative. His research and teaching is on business sustainability, social innovation, and cross-sector collaboration.

Among his other roles, Ralph is Academic Director of the Network for Business Sustainability (South Africa), which bridges research and practice in pursuit of better-informed and more ambitious business leadership. He co-founded and chairs the Southern Africa Food Lab, a multi-stakeholder initiative in support of food security.

Much of Ralph's tertiary training was in environmental science at UCT, and his Ph.D. is from the University of East Anglia.       

—Tim O'Riordan

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