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Making the World a Better Place... One Polar Bear at a Time

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The ominous research is everywhere: the decline in Arctic Sea ice is happening faster than predicted; it may be too late to halt the effects of global warming; industry and communities based in the Arctic are in danger of collapse; polar bears are doomed.

It's a heck of a lot of gloom. And it's easy to see why so many people eschew action (which involves digging even deeper into depressing statistics) in favour of ignoring the real -- and very terrifying -- threat that exists to our north. I should know: until a few weeks ago, I was one of those "hiding-my-head-like-an-ostrich" types. (It's an ironic omission, given Thomas Homer Dixon -- one of Canada's preeminent environmentalists -- was the architect of the program I studied at the University of Toronto.)

But then I was invited on a press trip to Churchill, Manitoba to see and experience the problems that are facing Canada's colder-than-cold countryside first-hand.

The trip was in honour of a new campaign -- Arctic Home* -- launched by WWF and Coca-Cola to raise funds that will help protect the ice polar bears who so desperately need to survive. As part of the initiative, the two organizations will work with local residents in Churchill -- the polar bear capital of the world -- to manage an area where the sea ice persists the longest. Hopefully preserving this environment will protect the bears and the economic needs of the town's citizens.

I went on the trip three weeks ago and it's still hard to put into words how incredible and life-changing it was.

Accessing Churchill is relatively simple -- you can get there by train, boat or plane, but not by car. The only catch is a trek through the tundra is expensive -- a week-long stay in the town, including polar bear watching, can run a person $12,000. It's for this reason many not-for-profit organizations pair with larger corporations to enact social change; for example, the relationship between WWF and Coca-Cola, or the bond between Polar Bears International and Canada Goose. Suffice it to say, changing the world ain't cheap.

But for all its costs, I firmly believe everyone -- yes, everyone -- should make the time and save the money to go near 60 degrees north. Why?

There is nothing like seeing polar bears in their natural habitat -- zoos don't do these majestic, powerful and impressive animals justice. There is nothing more heart-warming than watching a female bear play with, protect and coach her cubs. (The protecting part is key -- did you know male polar bears will actually eat the young!?) And there is nothing like watching two male polar bears spar to mark territory.

More importantly, however, it's the only way to see, feel and be affected by the way environmental degradation is ruining our planet.

I cried when I saw a polar bear struggling to find a patch of ice to hunt seal on -- this year the ice is forming three weeks later than it should be because of global warming; you could tell the bear was hungry and confused by the fact his natural habitat was dissolving around him.

It broke my heart to see a mom and her COY (stands for Cub Of the Year; also known as a one-year-old cub) eating kelp instead of seals to fill their stomachs; how can you kill a seal if there's no ice for you to hunt them on?

A trip like this makes the horrifying statistics and end-of-the-Arctic declarations real. The images I saw, the things I felt -- I now carry them with me on a daily basis. And, because of that, I've been compelled to act.

While I realize there's no stopping the inevitable decline of ice formation (our environment has been too degraded at this point), we can halt the damage we're currently doing. There are ways we can preserve what tundra and polar bears we have left, the numbers of which have dwindled to the point the where the Government of Canada has put them on a "species at risk" list. It starts with taking action in your backyard. Be more conscious about how you're consuming. Become an active and engaged citizen and talk to your local representatives about how you can make your city a greener place.

And, perhaps, most importantly -- donate. I've never been one to fork over money to a cause -- I'd rather get physically involved. But global warming is affecting an area of the world far too few of us will ever have the opportunity to see. The only way to save this part of our planet is to fund the incredible research projects I was able to witness while on the ground in Churchill -- from polar bear lifts to bear tagging and tracking.

The studies and statistics we hear on the news may tell us there's nothing we can do, and that we might as well give up. But after experiencing life in Churchill, after meeting with the town's mayor (who calls polar bears "the town's bears") and after chatting with the heads of Coca-Cola Canada and WWF (who both agree change can happen -- even if it's done in baby steps), I'm hopeful for the future. We can make this world a better place -- one action at a time.

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*Arctic Home is why you may have noticed the familiar red background of Coke cans turning white -- Coca-Cola is making an initial contribution of $2 million to WWF over five years and will match all individual donations made to the campaign at iCoke.ca until March 15, 2012 (up to $1 million US).

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