Menu Menu

How polar bears became a controversial symbol of the climate crisis

Though the idea of polar bears ceasing to exist might motivate people to care about climate change, how accurate is this imagery in conveying a message about a global issue that affects us all?

It’s International Polar Bear Week, which aims to bring awareness to a species that many of us will only ever encounter inside zoos, when watching nature documentaries, or while reading articles about climate change.

Many nature publications, in particular National Geographic, popularised the use of photos of polar bears for early articles discussing global warming. This created a psychological link between the two subjects that would last for decades, framing these animals as the ‘poster child’ of human-driven environmental destruction.

You know the image: a polar bear stranded alone on a small block of ice, looking hungry and desolate as the glacial world around her melts and disappears.

Such photos have come to emanate what humans have to lose through our reckless and unwavering participation in planet-warming activities. They have been published for their ability to pull at people’s heartstrings worldwide and – in the best cases – motivate us to act.

While they are admittedly majestic, why did polar bears become the face of an environmental crisis that affects every single ecosystem and species on the planet? And how accurate is this representation?

Why it may be time to stop using the polar bear as a symbol of the climate crisis | Polar regions | The Guardian

Why is the polar bear a problematic symbol?

Of course, polar bears are apex predators – an important part of the Arctic ecosystem.

They exist in an already fragile part of the world that is at a greater risk of collapsing as the climate crisis worsens. Already, sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate in the 19 regions where they live, including the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the US.

As a result, scientists have estimated that there is a 70 percent chance the global population of polar bears will fall by more than a third within the next three generations. That said, many scientists firmly believe that it is unlikely that they will disappear altogether.

This argument has been bolstered by a discovery made last year by researchers at the University of Washington – a small but thriving population of polar bears found living in the ice-free sea off Southeast Greenland.

These bears are genetically distinct, rarely interacting with larger populations from the 19 species we discussed above. They have learned to survive without Arctic ice, instead relying on freshwater fjords formed by melting glacier water that empties into the sea.

This unique sub-population offers a glimmer of hope for the species, as well as a glimpse into what their future may look like as global temperatures continue to rise.

It should come as no surprise then, that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says the attention on polar bears may be a misguided distraction that removes attention from threats faced by other endangered species and ecosystems.

If we use the polar bear as a marker for how well – or badly – we are doing in our fight against climate change, it can lead us into reductive thinking. The polar bears are still alive, so everything is okay… right?

Well, not really.

The Myth That the Polar Bear Population Is Declining - Foundation for Economic Education

The wider issues

It’s important to note that a deteriorating Arctic ecosystem will have global ramifications that extend well beyond the potential loss of polar bears.

Disappearing sea ice means less heat will be reflected back into space, warming the planet, and causing permafrost to melt. Stored inside this permafrost is carbon dioxide and methane which will be released during the process, resulting in more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

This will only further destabilise global weather patterns – a phenomenon we are already starting to witness today. Flash flooding is now causing trouble for agricultural industries and water supplies, while extreme wildfires stoked by drought and heatwaves have begun tearing through areas once teeming with wildlife and endangered species.

Most of all, these events have had dire consequences for people living in the Global South because climate adaptation doesn’t happen so naturally for humans. At present, estimates for the cost of global climate adaptation sit at around USD $140 billion minimum per year, with this figure estimated to increase to USD $500 billion by 2050.

Considering this, It’s quite ironic that the world has focused so intensely on the loss of polar bears rather than looking at their fellow humans who are most at risk.

A loss of the Arctic will create a ripple effect that eventually affects every living planet, animal, and human on Earth, which should be more of a reason to advocate for an end to environmentally destructive behaviours.

Because, in the end, we have more to lose than just polar bears.