POLITICS
10/25/2011 10:52 EDT | Updated 12/25/2011 05:12 EST

New Coca-Cola Can: Company Pledges Millions To Saving Polar Bears

Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola Ltd. is changing its iconic can — and pledging millions of dollars — to help scientists plan how other icons such as polar bears can survive in Canada's melting Arctic.

Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund have announced a project called Arctic Home, to which the global corporate giant has committed $2 million over five years, with another million promised to match donations from the public. The money is to fund research programs in the High Arctic related to habitat and wildlife survival, particularly with regard to polar bears.

Arctic experts say it's vital work that governments aren't doing as they increasingly focus on research directly related to development.

"This is probably the way we need to go," said Andy Derocher, one of the world's leading polar bear scientists from the University of Alberta.

"We need to find these private partnerships with non-governmental organizations that want to work with northern communities to try to establish long-term conservation monitoring programs. We are not seeing that leadership come from the federal government."

Some of the money is to pay for ground-level conservation, such as migration research or polar bear fences in communities that have lots of nearby bears. But Arctic Home also has larger advocacy goals, said WWF Canada CEO Gerald Butts.

"What we're after is looking at all of the change that's going to take place in the Arctic over the next 25 to 60 years and getting ahead of it by predicting where the last permanent sea ice is likely to persist and protect that area, not just for polar bears but for every ice-dependent species in the Arctic.

"The best way to think about it is a chain of networked conservation areas."

Those areas are most likely to be found in the High Arctic north of Baffin Island, said Butts.

Arctic sea ice, vital to polar bears as a hunting platform, has been rapidly shrinking due to climate change. Global warming will also make it easier to extract Arctic resources, a goal that is increasingly important to federal research efforts.

Coca-Cola Canada president Nicola Kettlitz said the project is a chance to do something for an animal that's been closely associated with the soft drink's image for years.

"It's part of our overall campaign of how we interact with the communities in which we operate," he said. "It will continue to get stronger over time and better."

An indication of how seriously the company takes the campaign is that Coke cans in Canada and the United States will change starting Nov. 1 until Jan. 15 from the well-known red to white.

"Branding is connected to colour and to walk away from your primary colour is an important step," said Kettlitz. "It makes a very big statement of support."

The only other time Coke has changed the colour of its Canadian cans was during the last Olympics, he said.

Kettlitz added the public will be able to participate by making donations through the company's website.

Both he and Butts acknowledge that getting local people and governments to join in the effort will be crucial. Environmental groups are often viewed suspiciously in the North.

"There's no doubt there's sensitivity," said Butts. "Our perspective is to be very respectful of those views in northern Canada."

Said Kettlitz: "We need to fully respect the wills and traditions of the local communities."

Preliminary talks have begun with Inuit groups and the government of Nunavut, said Butts. The federal government is also talking with WWF.

Derocher said the money isn't enough to transform northern research, but will be useful in expanding existing programs. A scientist surveying narwhal, for example, could add belugas to the research design.

But Arctic Home's greatest value, he said, is its long-term approach.

"It's a proactive perspective," said Derocher. "More and more, when we look at the pace of development that will come in the North, having this longer-term vision is absolutely essential."