Polar bear centre turns up heat on climate change

A new polar bear centre at the Assiniboine Park Zoo puts the heat on Manitoba to do more about climate change, according to a polar bear biologist of 14 years.

A new polar bear conservation centre at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg puts the heat on Manitoba to do more about climate change, according to a polar bear biologist of 14 years.

"Climate is very abstract, I think, for most people," Geoff York, a biologist with the World Wildlife Fund's Global Arctic Program, told CBC News in Winnipeg on Monday.

"So if you can put a face to that — and in this case, the face of the polar bear, an animal that people care about, people in Manitoba especially … [it] might be just the thing needed to get that political will engaged again."

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy officially opened the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre on Monday.

The $4.5-million centre will provide a home for orphaned, injured or problem polar bears, as well as host a research facility.

But its indoor exhibition space, open to the public, may draw the most attention. Interactive computer screens explain why a warming climate is melting the sea ice that polar bears need to hunt seals.

Sea ice loss blamed on human activity

The message is also unequivocal: humans are to blame.

"OK, so why is burning fossil fuels so bad?" asks an animated cartoon scientist on one of the exhibition panels.

York said that sentiment is based on decades of science.

"We know the largest threat to polar bears across the range is loss of sea ice habitat, driven by climate warming," said York.

"What's driving climate warming are greenhouse gases, generated by humans, and in large part generated by activities we do everyday — whether it's driving our cars or heating our homes."

The polar bear centre opens one month after the Manitoba government announced it would break its own law to reduce greenhouse gases.

The province had previously legislated that Manitoba would cut emissions in 2012 by six per cent below 1990 levels.

Instead, emissions rose by more than nine per cent since 1990, according to Environment Canada.

One of the few annual declines in Manitoba's emissions was in 2009, during a global economic recession.

Education is key, says minister

Manitoba's new conservation minister, Gord Mackintosh, said education will be the key to reversing that trend.

"There are still debates out there — you know, people who are still skeptics about climate change — and I think that's very regrettable," said Mackintosh.

A map showing the status of polar bear subpopulations around the world as of December 2011. (World Wildlife Fund)

"The first thing is to make sure everyone is on the same page, and recognizing this is one of the biggest threats."

Mackintosh said he will unveil a new climate change strategy in the spring.

York added there are only about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the world. Recent scientific surveys show that six of 19 polar bear subpopulations are declining, four subpopulations are stable, and only one subpopulation is growing.

Remaining subpopulations in Russia and the Arctic Ocean have insufficient data for trending, said York.

Construction is also underway on a four-hectare park within the zoo that is dedicated to polar bears. Journey to Churchill opens in late 2013.