Expert Voices

Will Grizzly-Polar Bear Hybrid Wake People Up to Changing Climate? (Op-Ed)

(Image credit: Screen grab from Animal Planet, Discovery Channel)

Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Science speaks most clearly for people when they can actually "see" the truth for themselves — when there's something tangible they can visualize about what might otherwise be just a math equation or a piece of scientific research.

The modern computer/tablet/smartphone era is a good example of this. The devices that billions now rely on each day are built largely on platforms involving sophisticated math equations that were once considered future applications — not present ones. But I dare anyone alive today to think of mobile devices or tablets as a nice math theory.

Albert Einstein had a problem once. He was convinced that some very smart group of physicists — perhaps Nazi scientists — were close to the then-theoretical ability to split the atom and harness its energy.

Einstein desperately wanted to get President Franklin Roosevelt's attention — to warn him of what might happen in the not-too-distant future should Nazi scientists succeed in that effort and create a weapon based on what was (at the time) a possible future built from math equations and theoretical physics.

The myth is that Einstein wrote a letter to FDR, warning him of the grave risk, and that in turn set off a chain of events culminating in the Manhattan Project and the birth of the atomic age. Most people have heard about the "Einstein letter" that allegedly triggered high-level action at the White House.

But the truth, sadly, is that Einstein actually had to write four such letters — each more insistent than the previous one — laying out the potential risks should Nazi scientists succeed in acquiring an atomic weapon before the United States did. Einstein was mostly an irritant to FDR and his senior White House staff with his warnings. FDR had a real war to consider — not some theoretical future threat.

So, mostly to stop him from writing even more letters warning about a potential, future threat from atomic weapons, FDR convened a committee that authorized an extremely modest $6,000 research grant to study it. With that funding, Enrico Fermi created the first "atomic pile" — and the theory of splitting and harnessing the atom was transformed from a distant, future threat to a present one.

On Tuesday, the National Research Council (NRC) issued something akin to that series of Einstein letters.

Its report on the potential for "abrupt climate change" was an update of an earlier report a decade ago, about the potential for the Earth's climate system to shift abruptly in a relatively short period of time if certain breaking points are reached or tipping points are crossed.

The new NRC report was widely covered in the press. Like the Einstein letters to FDR, this report and others like them are a steady, cascading drumbeat desperately trying to get the attention of the world's leaders to warn them of the ways in which a distant, future threat to civilization could become a very real, sudden, present threat.

But something has also changed in the past decade — and it illustrates why this issue may now start to become real and tangible for people.

Climate change is no longer a future threat off in the distance. It's becoming a present one — here, now — that will have a lasting and potentially devastating affect on small-hold farmers in developing countries no longer able to predict the start of the planting season, cities near sea level that haven't planned for storm surge, countries in the path of ever-stronger typhoons and, of course, iconic species that are moving towards or away from the poles to escape the onset of a new climate era.

Seeing is believing when it comes to science — and inside the NRC report is the reminder that we are now seeing what climate science had predicted decades ago. The new NRC report, among many other findings, continues to chronicle the collapse of the ecosystem for polar bears in the face of climate change.

Seven years ago, a hunter killed the first of the "pizzlies" — a hybrid born of two endangered species, the grizzly bear and the polar bear — in Canada's Northwest Territories. Such pizzlies were predicted, and perhaps inevitable, as climate change forced grizzlies north and polar bears south from the melting Arctic.

National Geographic displayed the first recorded picture of such a "pizzly" a few years later. At the same time, Nature chronicled the emergence of dozens of such hybrids — all of them due to climate change shrinking, altering and confounding their ecosystem. New biodiversity research reports on the horizon will similarly detail the imminent collapse of ecosystems for other iconic, recognizable species.

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The science of climate change for these species is no longer theoretical, distant and off in the future. It's here, now — and species are being forced to deal with it however they can. And while there may be only a few of these pizzlies today, they are quite real and they tell a story that society needs to hear before it's too late.

Polar bears were once the face of global warming. Many, many people associated climate change with the notion that polar bears might become extinct as their Arctic habitat disappeared in the face of future climate changes. Thankfully, climate impacts to people — not polar bears — are now the focus of most efforts.

But polar bears are still telling us — by their actions — that humanity is moving into a new climate era. And the story the bears are telling is that climate change is significantly affecting their part of the planet, and that it's only a matter of time before it changes the rest of the planet in equally significant ways.

Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "How 'Reluctant Innovators' are Transforming the World." This Op-Ed was adapted from "Climate Change and FDR," which first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge in U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.