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Big Sky Ideas Fest panel discusses climate change

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By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Two male polar bears feed on the carcass of a baby polar bear until its mother arrives, carrying the remains to safety to grieve in a scene from Max Lowe’s documentary “Bare Existence.” 

In the film, Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, says this occurrence of cannibalism, among other mannerisms of desperation, will only increase as the bear’s ecosystem shrinks due to climate change.

“We can think of these bears as messengers,” says Amstrup in the film. “It’s a tragic message but these kinds of events unfolding in the arctic tell us what kinds of events are to come to all of us.”

The screening kicked off a roundtable discussion called “The Arctic Circle to Yellowstone; A Conversation on Climate,” moderated by journalist Todd Wilkinson on Jan. 27 at the Big Sky Ideas Festival. The discussion took place in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and was broadcast on Explore Big Sky’s YouTube channel.

Panelists included Lowe, who has worked with National Geographic since he received the Young Explorers Grant in 2012; Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a Regents professor in earth sciences at Montana State University and a Fellow of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems; Twila Moon, deputy lead scientist of the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Cooperative Institute for Research at University of Colorado and co-founder of the Wheelhouse Institute; and Kristin Gardner, executive director for the Gallatin River Task Force.

Wilkinson, a seasoned environmental journalist and founder of the digital publication Mountain Journal, led the discussion about the importance of taking action for vulnerable species like the polar bear, but also for humans. Amid statistics Moon calls “unimaginable” and tragic footage of a species with limited time on our planet, however, the panel spoke of hope in the coming years.

“I do think we have to spend some time recognizing sadness, recognizing grief, recognizing the really unpleasant and difficult feelings that come with seeing these changes in our life, but we then have to take ourselves back out of that,” said Moon. She does this, she says, by educating herself and others and believing that everyone has the power to make a difference.

Change seems to live at the intersection of passion and education, a truth that became evident when Whitlock spoke of her work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“It’s the biggest high there is—that’s what got me started,” said Whitlock, who served as lead author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment and in 2018 she became the first person from a Montana university to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. “I just love what I’m doing and it’s so darn fun.” 

Both Gardener and Lowe touched on another great influencer of change: relating it to something you love.

“If you can personalize stories, I think that goes a really long way,” Gardner said. Because our values in Big Sky revolve around the outdoors, such as skiing fresh powder and fishing clean waterways, personalizing climate change is a powerful focus of GRTF. She says a good version of what the polar bear is to arctic communities is our local algae bloom—an indicator of water quality in the Gallatin.

Climate change science is more accurate than ever, there are more activists than ever, and there are open-minded, younger generations to educate—armed with these facts, we may just come out on the other side, panelists agreed.

“If we act within the next 10 to 12 years, we can save the world we know,” Lowe said. “We’re not just observers of ecology, we’re in it—every time you step outside your house you have some ability to influence the world.”

Visit YouTube to watch the climate discussion.

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