Let’s save the glaciers, but what about the wolf?

Where can you be called to the ballot box to save the glaciers one day and be asked to decide the fate of the wolf the next?

This content was published on August 31, 2020 - 11:07

You’re right: Switzerland. It may seem like an apples and oranges kind of thing, but there is a link. The two issues illustrate, on the one hand, how our view of the natural world is seldom coherent, and, on the other, how we have unshakeable faith in the power of the vote.

The ballot box can be likened to a robust democracy’s thermostat – like adjusting the room temperature by the turn of a knob, we cast our vote to empower the authorities to regulate nature to a comfortable level.

The wolves

Too many sheep killed by wolves? Let’s change the law to weaken the predator’s protected status while at the same time throwing in a mix of measures to ensure the wolf and other wild animals aren’t hunted into extinction again.

If you want to understand just how the law is expected to achieve such a fine balance, I recommend reading a detailed report on the changes to the legislation by our political correspondent, Urs Geiser.

Urs will be following the debate closely in the run up to voting day on September 27. A nationwide poll in mid-August found that nearly 60% of voters believe a balance is achievable.

The glaciers

Saving glaciers is a greater challenge. The ice sheets are the centrepiece of a campaign to stop global warming. The stated goal of the “Glacier Initiative” – which is likely to be voted on next year – is to phase out fossil fuels in Switzerland by 2050.

I don’t think citizens are gullible enough to think they can have the same success protecting glaciers as they can managing wildlife populations. Yet glaciers are for the Swiss what polar bears are for Canadians – the poster child for climate change.

Like polar bears, and wolves for that matter, glaciers are very much alive. They expand in winter and recede in summer when they’re known to “calve”, the moment when large chunks of ice break off. Yet glaciers pose little threat to humans or livestock, even if their crevasses swallow up a few unwary wanderers or skiers each year who dare venture across them. Just last week, a tourist was rescued after spending two days trapped in a crevasse she had fallen into. The local rescue service described her survival in such frigid conditions as a “miracle”.

Besides this unfortunate (or very fortunate) woman, why would anyone not want to save glaciers? The real question is how closely voters like myself will look at the fine print, to understand the individual and collective sacrifices we need to make to reduce carbon emissions to zero over the next few decades. And ultimately, it must be a global effort.

It’s early days, but I suspect there will be many citizens who won’t bother with the fine print. They’ll vote to save the glaciers, the ballot box their tool to pass the buck to someone else – the authorities once again – to work out the details.

What the science says

Unless drastic action is taken, it’s probably too late. Studies forecast the disappearance of both Alpine glaciers and polar bears by the end of the century. Our resident expert on glaciers and climate change, Luigi Jorio, has put together an excellent collection of reports that reveal the devastating impact of global warming on glaciers.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. The models used to predict the vanishing act of the icesheets have failed to take into account the cooling potential of rock debris strewn across them.

Earlier this month, the UK’s Northumbria University and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research published research based on satellite imagery that found more than 7% of the world’s total mountain glacier area is covered by debris. This rock cover is a protective layer slowing the melting rate.

On a final note, a series of photos we recently published showing children who grew up in the Alps in the 1930s and 40s made me wonder, how would they vote on the glacier initiative? Could they have imagined back then just how drastically their natural surroundings would change, and that this would be an issue at the ballot box one day?

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

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