Yahoo! Exclusive: Environmentalists, big business can work together says WWF’s Martin von Mirbach

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The relationship between big business and environmentalists doesn’t have to be adversarial, says Martin von Mirbach, Ottawa-based Arctic program director for the World Wildlife Fund.

The WWF has had a longstanding relationship with soft-drink behemoth Coca-Cola and is in the second-year of a five-year, $2-million program called Arctic Home. It works with communities in the high Arctic to research and plan the best way to preserve the polar bear and other ice-dependent species from the effects of climate change and shrinking sea ice. The so-called Last Ice Area of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland covers about 1.4 million square kilometres.

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with Yahoo! Canada News, von Mirbach describes the program and talks candidly about the WWF’s embrace of a corporate giant like Coca-Cola:

Y! Canada News: Can you explain what the Arctic Home program is and Coca-Cola’s involvement?

Martin von Mirbach: The Arctic Home campaign is a partnership between Coca-Cola and WWF Canada. It’s a five-year commitment focusing on conserving polar bears in their habitat. We’re working with northern peoples to develop a plan for this area we call the last ice area, which is really the area of the high Arctic which is projected to retain sea ice longer than other areas of the Arctic in a rapidly changing climate.

Coca-Cola comes in by providing financial support, both directly through a five-year commitment to WWF and through innovative ways to both raise awareness and funds. In this case this year it’s through five per cent proceeds from specially marked packs in Canada, with the proceeds going to our campaign to support this work in the area.

[ Related: Canada's North a challenging place to invest, says report ]

Y! Canada News: This is the second year of a five-year term, is that right?

Von Mirbach: That’s right.

Y! Canada News: One of the things I’m not clear on is what the Arctic Home accomplishes. Is it in a sense a sanctuary?

Von Mirbach: That’s a good question. Our primary goal is to engage in a dialogue with northern communities about how that future would look. Our interest in it is because scientific models projecting how the decline of sea ice — which is really been in the news in the last couple of years and projected to increase over the decades to come — how is that likely to impact on the habitat for wildlife that depend on that. What we find is that the situation doesn’t look good for much of the Arctic. But for much of the region Arctic, especially in the high northern Canada, it looks relatively good. We’re bringing that to the table, to northern peoples, northern communities, aboriginal governments, territorial governments and the federal government, to say this is an interesting picture. If we plan now, we can get ahead of the curve and make sure that, while development proceeds in the Arctic, it does so in a way that allows for continuing habitat for polar bears and other ice-dependent species.

Y! Canada News: So in a sense the Arctic Home is maybe not a misnomer but it might mislead people to think that you’re trying to create a refuge or something.

Von Mirbach: That’s right; that’s not our goal. There will certainly be development in those areas; there will be areas where development is not appropriate. There will be corridors with connectivity between them. The piece that we’re adding is how do this kind of planning in a dynamic environment. The environment and the ecosystem conditions that exist now aren’t going to remain static in 20, 30 or 40 years from now. So let’s try and do planning and anticipate what conditions will be like in several decades. That adds another dimension but it’s not one that says you have either polar bears or development. Properly planned, both can take place at the same time.

Y! Canada News: I’m just wondering what people will think if you’re specifying a particular part of the North that you say for scientific reasons has the best chance of coping with the current changes. Does that imply you’re writing off the rest of the North?

Von Mirbach: That’s a good question. It’s less clear, let’s say, what will happen. I think in particular if you look at the northern coast of Russia, which has seen the ice decline in that part of the Arctic, (it) has been really more dramatic than the (Canadian) high Arctic. We’ve seen similar circumstances in Hudson Bay, where we have increased congregation of polar bears along the shore near Churchill, and along the shores of Hudson Bay, as they’re having to wait longer and longer before they can go out on the ice to hunt. So those are areas where the polar bears are at the edge of their range and there is a lot of concern about what the long-term prospects for polar bears and other ice-dependent species will be in the area. I think that’s fair to say. The die isn’t cast. There are a lot of uncertainties in nature and you can project what the future will look like but you can’t make ironclad predictions in a system as complex as nature. But there certainly is widespread concern over how polar bears will respond at the edges of their range.

Y! Canada News:: What level of interest or involvement is there from the federal government?

Von Mirbach: I would say it’s a watching brief for them. We did convene a meeting a bit more than a year ago to bring federal officials from 11 different federal agencies together, in the initial case, to show them what some of the ice modeling was showing. They’re interested; they’re paying attention to it and it obviously they have an interest from a variety of different perspectives both from managing wildlife as well as ensuring that sustainable development options are retained and exercised as appropriate. We share that view. What we’d like to do is get the information to the table and then get people to sit around that table and figure out what’s the best way to explore those options.

[ Last week's One-on-One: Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello ]

Y! Canada News: Let me finally turn to the relationship with Coca-Cola. I gather before this program you had some connection and support from them, is that right?

Von Mirbach: WWF internationally has been working with Coca-Cola for quite some time. We’ve been working with them on reducing their ecological footprint, especially around water use. And they’re a member of our climate-savers program, indicating they’ve made independently verified, industry-leading commitments regarding reducing their greenhouse-gas footprint. So this is a company that we’ve been working with and it’s something that WWF does, which is to work with companies that are having an impact, providing them and helping them implement the tools to reduce that impact.

This is a new campaign for us because this is not about Coca-Cola’s impact directly. This is a cross-marketing campaign that allows Coca-Cola to use its marketing influence to help spread our message more effectively and more broadly than we could do by ourselves.

Y! Canada News: Do you sense though that there is a promotional aspect for them as well? They’ve used the polar bear for years as a marketing symbol. This kind of reinforces that for them and burnishes that corporate good-guy image.

Von Mirbach: Well, we’re delighted. The polar bear has, as you say, been used to market Coca-Cola for decades now. Now they’ve risen to the challenge to put some of that marketing savvy into practice to help conserve real, live actual polar bears, both now and in the future. From our perspective that’s a good thing.

Y! Canada News: The whole issue of the relationship between business and environmental groups is a little fraught sometimes, isn’t it. Do you have to consider who you will accept support from. Would you take money from an oil sands producer, for instance?

[ Related: Expert: Melting Arctic sea ice and poaching will drive polar bears to extinction within 25 years ]

Von Mirbach: Our relationship with Coca-Cola is founded on them making significant, independently verified credible commitments to reduce their footprint. I think we’ll work with any company willing and able to make those kinds of commitments. We don’t rely just on their good word for it and they don’t rely on our good word for it. We refer them to independent experts to review on a case-by-case basis what corporations are committing to and it’s on that basis that we have a relationship where we see there’s mutual advantage. They benefit, obviously, from being associated with an environmental organization like WWF and we benefit by working directly with companies having significant environmental impact on how they can reduce those impacts. In a lot of cases, frankly, it’s more effective to work directly with companies than it is to work indirectly through trying to lobby regulators to in turn regulate the companies. If we can work directly with them I think we’re advancing conservation more efficiently than you can through other means.

It can only work if it’s mutually beneficial. Of course the process, that’s where it takes sometimes years to develop these relationships. You have to ensure that it’s a balance, that the value that the corporation is getting by being associated with WWF is matched with value that they’re providing in terms of new additional commitments beyond business as usual to reduce their footprint. And we’re satisfied that we’re at that place with Coca-Cola.