See that picture at the top? Does it look a little familiar? This picture was taken from a viral video in 2017 that initiated worldwide alarm over the state of the global polar bear population. Captured by Paul Nicklen and Christina Mittermeier, the two co-founders of the conservation group SeaLegacy, on Nunavut’s Somerset Island in 2017, the video was later picked up by National Geographic and published in December with the caption ‘this is what climate change looks like’. The released video understandably incited worldwide concern for the emaciated animal – until the hidden truth slowly came to light.

Although the video was first posted in the middle of winter, the video itself was filmed in August when the local area experiences its annual thaw. This deliberate delay in timing misled viewers into believing the climate in the northern habitats had already changed drastically from the norm. Mittermeier also later explained to the public that a member of their film group had spotted the bear several days before the video was taken. However, in order to preserve the filming opportunity, no attempts to contact the local authorities to help the animal were made. Further deepening the misunderstanding, the caption that was used by National Geographic in the published video blaming climate change for the polar bear’s state was also proven to be entirely untrue, as the SeaLegacy co-founders later admitted they had no idea what had caused the bear to become sick. National Geographic published a retraction article half a year later admitting that the claim of causality in their choice of caption ‘went too far’, and the video was edited in June 2018 with a revised caption using the more conservative claim; ‘this is what a starving polar bear looks like’. At present, official copies of the initial video containing the original caption can no longer be found.

Today, claims on the safety of the polar bear population range from perfectly fine to on the verge of extinction. Thus, uncovering the facts amidst the blatant propaganda is an essential step in deciphering the truth. The world’s polar bears are divided into 19 distinct subpopulations, and the controversy surrounding the health of polar bears comes, in part, from the difficulty of acquiring any accurate information on them in the first place. Aside from the difficulties inherent in their frigid habitat and natural Arctic camouflage, native groups such as the Canadian Inuit also protest against the use of more invasive mark-recapture studies. An international consortium of experts called the Polar Bear Specialist Group published an article in September 2019 that explained four of the 19 subpopulations have likely decreased, five are likely stable, two have likely increased, and an astounding eight populations are data-deficient, which means no conclusions can be drawn at all. When looking at historical estimates of the total polar bear population dating from 1993 to 2016, it can be seen that the population estimates for all 19 subpopulations together consistently hovers around 20,000-25,000 bears. However, this is not taking into account changes in age and sex demographics amongst the total population, and similarly does not include data on possible changes in yearly migration patterns. Overall, although polar bears are not as endangered as radical climate change activists would hope for us to believe, polar bears as a whole are still a species worthy of careful observation to prevent greater future risks. To reflect this, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature appropriately classifies polar bears to be a vulnerable species, which, though worthy of concern, are not currently in any critical danger.

Why, then, do polar bears continue to be paraded by multiple sources as a sentinel species of climate change when the hard data remains so indeterminate? Perhaps it is a natural inclination of human nature to prefer the cute and cuddly over the slimy and many-legged. How much money, after all, could a fundraiser to preserve the lives of toads make when compared to one for the sake of such majestic bears? How much pity could a video of a dying beetle evoke when compared to the one which features the iconic image above? Despite the obvious weakness in their arguments, climate change activitsts persist in using polar bears as the face of their cause in order to propagate their political agenda. Rather than sincerely requiring the most urgent protection, these bears have instead been turned into iconic tools to keep the generous donations rolling in.

So, in the end, is the picture of a starving bear what climate change really looks like? No, not really. Do all polar bears look like this now? Absolutely not. Instead of a statement on its possible environmental impact, this poor bear’s picture better resembles the true face of media manipulation.









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Meggie Kuypers

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