Polar bears, climate icons

For decades, polar bears leaping between melting ice caps were a symbol of climate change, until experts began to question the effectiveness of the photographs.

At an abandoned hunting camp on the Baffin Islands in northern Canada, photographers Christina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen watched in horror as a polar bear took what could have been its final steps. With mangy, discolored fur and an emaciated body, the bear dragged its paws with slow, laborious movements.

At one point he stopped to look for food in an abandoned barrel, chewed the foam padding of a burned sled, and walked away. “It was probably very painful to look at this animal during those seconds”said Mittermeier, who captured what became one of the most viral (and controversial) polar bear photographs of the last decade in his last minute of life.

In December 2017, National Geographic magazine published a photo of the bear and an accompanying video of Nicklen with the caption: "This is what climate change looks likeThe Baffin Islands scene became a sensation, quickly attracting nearly 2.500 billion views and sparking a global debate about the threat of melting glaciers and global warming.

Effectiveness of images on climate change

Images of polar bears frantically clinging to ice floes or remote Arctic landscapes have become instantly recognizable symbols of the climate crisis. But over the last decade, scientists, activists and the media have begun to distance themselves from these images, questioning whether or not they really present a realistic picture of climate change.

Images that once attracted disturbing attention have been criticized as implausible, disparate and harmful, leading to calls for more diverse depictions of climate change. Mainstream media has begun to move away from these iconic images, favoring images of extreme weather, such as heat waves, droughts and storms, which highlight a much more immediate problem.

While experts agree that the polar ice caps are melting at a record pace, some warn that photographs of distressed polar bears may not tell the whole story.

Since 1979, sea ice concentrations have decreased by 13% per decade due to rising global temperatures. By 2023, sea levels in Antarctica will be significantly lower than any winter level previously recorded, a benchmark the National Snow and Ice Data Center recently described as "staggering."

The victims of climate change

One of the victims of these changes are polar bears, who spend less time on sea ice, causing them to feel hungry for longer, lose weight and have fewer cubs. However, Michael Pritchard, a photography historian at Britain's Royal Photographic Society, warns that actual photographs of polar bears can be "problematic."

"We need to think about the context in which it was taken, how it was taken and why it was taken. They say that photography never lies. But in reality, it can tell a very different story from reality."I affirm.

In response to criticism of Mittermeier's photograph of a hungry polar bear suggesting that other factors such as cancer could be at play, National Geographic issued a statement saying it had "gone too far" by linking polar bear deaths to climate change.

In a later National Geographic article, Mittermeier described how "lost control of the narrative" when the photo went viral. However, as co-founder of SeaLegacy, a climate advocacy organization, she notes that her goal is not to make a scientific statement but to create a topic of debate.

"When scientists say that polar bears in the Arctic will starve due to melting sea ice, it looks like this," said. “[Polar bears] are more than just a number on a spreadsheet. We hope that influences the debate".

He also said that shocking images can change the discourse, in the same way as iconic images like the “Napalm Girl” from 1972 that became a defining symbol of the Vietnam War and influenced public opinion.

"I really wanted this photograph to become a moment where we stop to recognize that climate change is an existential threat to humanity and that it starts with animals.", he added.

paradoxical image

Cristina Mittermeier's photograph of hungry polar bears fueled a global discussion about the threat posed by climate change (Credit: Cristina Mittermeier/ SeaLegacy)

While polar bears may once have been symbols of climate change, experts say they have lost their value as climate icons, misrepresenting the species as a whole and blurring the immediate threat of climate disaster.

On the one hand, polar bear photographs can be a persuasive tool to attract donations from sympathetic audiences, Pritchard said. Like the panda, which became a conservation symbol and beloved mascot of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1961, the polar bear has become a symbol of a world that people want to protect.

"They are perceived as cute and adorable, so they immediately attract people, whether for fundraising purposes or to raise awareness about a particular issue."Pritchard said."If photos of fish or amphibians were used in the campaigns, they would no longer have the same result due to the lack of popularity of these animals.".

Saffron O'Neill, a climate and society expert at the University of Exeter in England, has tracked the saturation of polar bear images in the news and popular science media. Her research shows that this trend is particularly strong in the UK. Polar bear images accounted for an average of 2 to 6% of visual climate news between 2000 and 2010, with some newspapers achieving more than double that coverage in subsequent years.

O'Neill also conducted a study with 30 participants from the United Kingdom. They spontaneously mentioned polar bears when asked about the first images that come to mind when thinking about climate change.

But Kate Manzo, a professor of climate change communication at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, calls them “paradoxical images”: images that convey contradictory messages. Manzo said one of the problems with these campaigns is that they misrepresent polar bears that they are not "small white furry toys".

He gave the example of anti-poverty campaigns involving malnourished African children, distributed in charity leaflets and television advertisements. "Images of hungry children with flies on their faces evoke many emotions and people often donate money to help NGOs, but they also reinforce all kinds of stereotypes of colonialism problematic," he said.

In the case of polar bear photographs, there is a risk of alienating the public by suggesting that the person photographed is removed from reality. Stereotypical images of the Arctic – frozen, empty and so remote it seems otherworldly – ​​create the impression that climate change is a distant problem. “Focusing on this iconic image risks excluding the broader reality of climate change. For example, it ignores the essential perspectives of indigenous communities in the Arctic”O’Neill said.

"A symbol cannot be trusted to represent a global problem with local consequences" Manzo said. According to her, a more identifiable image is extreme weather. Images of last summer's floods in the United Kingdom, as well as tourists fleeing the heat in Greece and wildfires in Canada, show that It is harder to ignore the problem.”Climate change is upon us. We need to find other ways to raise awareness about the climate crisis"Manzo stated.

Humans, not polar bears

Greenland Ð Qeqertaq Arnatassiaq and Niels Molgard in Denmark push an iceberg with their small, powerful boat so that it does not drag their fishing nets. Mandatory Credit: Turpin Samuel / Climate Visuals Countdown

In 2010, campaigns by non-profit organizations Oxfam and Christian Aid began to move away from traditional images, supporting "people, not polar bearsEditorials later followed suit, publishing editorials pledging to stop using images of polar bears in articles about climate change. In 2019, Fiona Shields, the Guardian's photo editor, said the paper would remove polar bears as climate crisis illustration, classifying them as "an obvious choice, although not necessarily suitable".

Shields cited tight deadlines, a limited photo database and the struggle to portray what seemed like an invisible crisis as reasons coverage relied so heavily on traditional icons like polar bears. When the media began looking for alternative images, many turned to Climate Visuals, a science-based climate photography resource founded in 2017 by Climate Outreach.

The organization provides a library of photographs that media and nonprofit organizations can use for free or for a small licensing fee. They are also consistent with the seven principles of climate communication, the first of which is: “show real people".

In the Climate Visuals study, 17 images were selected and tested in six focus groups in Germany, as well as in a representative survey of a sample of the German population. Research shows that the image of polar bears is symbolic but not convincing enough.

"It would be nice to show more human interaction with climate change, something everyone can relate to"said Alastair Johnston, visual climate consultant at Climate Outreach. There are no photographs of polar bears in their database; instead, photographs of the Arctic Circle belong to climate scientists or indigenous people and include detailed captions, attribution information and an explanation of why they are relevant to your evidence base.

Tell new stories

Telling new stories is also an important principle”There is a problem of visual fatigue. Many people are familiar with photographs of polar bears."Johnston said. Rejecting tired images is an opportunity to offer hope."If you combine emotional images with solution-based photography, people will have a deeper connection with the image", Add.

This reflects a broader trend of “conservation photography”, which highlights both the beauty and, in many cases, the threats to our environment.

Although Mittermeier said he stands by his iconic photo of a hungry polar bear, his photographs increasingly reflect problem-solving. In 2023, he celebrated the restoration of a damaged coral reef in a marine reserve in Baja, Mexico on the cover of Time magazine.

"If you look at my work as a whole, it's more about creating a planet we want to live on.", said. "It encourages us to act and get involved, rather than constantly facing horror".


With information of: https://www.bbc.com/