Wearing a winter coat and toque, with one hand holding a hockey stick and the other firmly gripping the reigns of a trusty polar bear. This is what comes to mind when some around the world imagine a Canadian.  While this bizarre image couldn’t be further from the truth (as all Canadians know, the other hand is holding a bottle of maple syrup because a polar bear needs no reigns) it is understandable because we are closely associated with these symbols: winter and the North. Tragically the Great White North is at risk from the effects of climate change and no part of the ridiculous portrait above is more threatened than polar bears.

The earliest major effort to save the polar bears came in 1973 when a group of five arctic countries with polar bear populations, known as the range states, came together to sign the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. This agreement was designed to protect this magnificent animal by focusing on areas that limited human intrusion into existing polar bear habitats. In this effort Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States set an impressive example of successful international conservation.

“These actions by the range states following the 1973 Agreement were very successful in enabling polar bear populations to stabilise or bounce back. But it eventually became clear that a new threat – climate change – was emerging and causing the bears’ habitat to disappear beneath their feet, literally,” shared Dr. Melanie Lancaster, Senior Specialist of Arctic Species with the WWF Arctic Programme. “Since the late 2000s much of the focus for polar bear conservation has shifted to understanding and reducing the impacts of climate change. Today we are seeing summer sea ice disappearing earlier in summer and taking longer to return in the fall, forcing polar bears to stay on land for longer, away from seals, their main food source. Scientists have found that this stress is affecting their ability to have cubs and even to survive in some regions.”

In 2011, building upon their previous success, The Coca-Cola Company and WWF partnered to take up the cause of polar bear conservation through Coca-Cola’s Arctic Home Campaign. This program took aim at raising awareness and funding with community events like WWF’s Polar Dip, engaging online content related to Arctic conservation and specially marked cans. To date the program has raised nearly $6 million and supported important work like polar bear-human conflict reduction by helping Arctic communities to live alongside polar bears, and identifying a region dubbed the Last Ice Area where sea ice is likely to persist the longest and focusing on effective management of that zone.

“The Arctic and the Last Ice Area is important to Canadians, but it’s also something that should be protected for the benefit of the entire world due to its unique habitat, species, and the ice’s ability to slow the pace of climate change,” said Ron Soreanu, Director of Public Affairs and Communications for Coca-Cola Ltd. “It was a wonderful opportunity for Coca-Cola to use its brand to raise awareness about an important issue and to help fund the great work of WWF-Canada to protect the Last Ice Area.”

While Coca-Cola and WWF were reminding the world of the risks facing polar bears, there was a renewed interest by the range states to redouble their own efforts and address the new challenges of climate change. In 2013, the 40th anniversary of the 1973 agreement, the five member states recommitted to coordinated action. Two years later the Circumpolar Action Plan was agreed to by the range states, and range-wide strategies were developed as well as national and bi-national initiatives. WWF will follow the progress of the range states and contribute wherever possible to make sure that the resources and actions of the countries involved are focused on the areas of greatest impact for polar bears.

The Circumpolar Action Plan is a perfect example of what we here at Coca-Cola call Golden Triangle (business, government and civil society/not-for-profit) collaboration. By using the strength of our brand and our expertise in marketing to raise awareness and money, we enable groups like WWF to support crucial research and run their own programs which in turn supports governments to make informed decisions and take the necessary action.

“While talk about conservation efforts can sometimes sound bleak, I truly think it is a hopeful message,” Dr. Lancaster said. “There is so much we can all do on an individual basis to help support conservation efforts. By being mindful in our everyday lives, reducing our personal carbon footprint and ensuring that our governments are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we can make a difference for polar bears and the Arctic.”