Did Climate Change Kill a Polar Bear?

Probably not this time. Eva Holland looks at how a disturbing wildlife image went viral—generating anguish, anger, and confusion about the undeniably warming Arctic.

By now you’ve seen the video: an emaciated polar bear staggers along an ice-free Arctic shore, skin and fur hanging loose from its bones. At the bottom of the screen, as the bear struggles to keep its hind legs from collapsing, the words “This is what climate change looks like” appear.

The footage was shot by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen in July, as part of his work with a group called SeaLegacy. Initially posted to Nicklen’s Instagram and Facebook feeds, it was published online by NatGeo on December 7 and quickly went viral.

Questions and pushback—and pushback on the pushback! —soon followed. (In my social media feeds, there were as many responses to the bear video as there were to The New Yorker’s “Cat Person” short story.) On December 9, in response to questions tweeted at him by a graduate student, Arctic wildlife biologist Jeff Higdon offered some context and criticism about the video. Higdon noted that bear populations in the region where it was shot are considered stable and that seasonally absent ice in that area is normal. (The images were taken on Somerset Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, although the NatGeo post attributed the footage to Baffin Island, slightly further east, resulting in some confusion.) He speculated that the bear in the video might have had an aggressive bone cancer. The bear has not been seen since.

“What the SeaLegacy crew should have done was contact the [government of Nunavut] conservation officer in the nearest community and had this bear put down and necropsied,” Higdon wrote. “The narrative of the story might have turned out quite different if they had.”

Two days later, on December 11, CBC Radio’s national current-affairs program As It Happens aired an interview with Nunavut-based polar bear monitor Leo Ikakhik. Ikakhik was skeptical of the implicit link between the bear’s condition and climate change. “These things happen,” he said, also suggesting that the bear was likely sick or injured. “I wouldn’t really blame the climate change.”

SeaLegacy’s Cristina Mittermeier, one of the photographers who saw the dying bear, responded to the CBC interview with a provocative statement: “Inuit people make a lot of money from trophy bear hunting,” she wrote, according to As It Happens. “Of course, it is in their best interest to say that polar bears are happy and healthy and that climate change is a joke, because otherwise their quota might be reduced.”

Ikakhik never suggested that climate change was a joke. But Mittermeier’s response represented the latest example of a long history of tension and outright hostility between Inuit communities and Canadian environmental groups with an interest in the Arctic. The conflict nearly always stems from the ongoing Inuit practice of hunting and eating seals, whales, walrus, and polar bears. (Greenpeace Canada recently issued an apology for the impact that its decades-long campaign against the seal hunt has had on Inuit communities.)

“I wasn’t surprised” by the response, said Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital. “These organizations often have a playbook, certain ways of spinning this issue. When Inuit or northerners speak up and counter their misinformation, they go on the offensive. It was an offensive attack on our people and our culture and our way of life.”

Using her personal Twitter account, Redfern responded to Mittermeier’s statement with a pile of data about Inuit polar-bear hunts. She noted that while Inuit communities have the right to allocate their polar bear quotas for paid sport hunts, more than 90 percent of the tags are kept for community use instead—a single polar bear, she estimated, can provide up to $10,000 worth of meat for remote fly-in communities with limited and very expensive access to groceries.

“Inuit are actually forgoing hundreds of thousands, if not a million dollars, of available income from sports hunts,” she told me. The accusation that Inuit are denying climate change in the name of profit was dishonest and disingenuous, she said.

For his part, Nicklen said he was very careful in his initial social media posts not to overstate a link between the bear’s condition and climate change. But the messaging spun out of his control as the video gained steam, “and all of a sudden the fight was on,” he told me. “The last people I want to upset are the Inuit. The last people I want to upset are the scientific community.”

The whole episode illustrates the difficulty of communicating effectively about something as nebulous and all-encompassing as climate change. In this case, it seems to me, several things are true:

  1. Climate change is real.
  2. Polar bears, like all of us, will be deeply affected by that reality.
  3. The bear in the video was dying.
  4. Its apparent starvation cannot be attributed to climate change with any certainty, or even with any likelihood.
  5. Endorsing point number 4 is not a denial of numbers 1 or 2.
  6. Viral videos and social media responses aren’t the ideal medium for this conversation.

“We’ve lost control of this one,” Nicklen said. “I think people are losing the bigger message.”

“It’s been an interesting learning experience for sure,” said Higdon, whose tweets in response to the video were widely seen. He was frustrated by what he believed were misrepresentations by SeaLegacy. “I thought it was misleading, and misleading to the extent that it doesn’t help communicate various issues,” he said. But since then, his arguments about one specific bear have been cited more broadly by climate change deniers, too. “There’s tweets going out saying climate change isn’t killing the bears, it’s cancer. Which of course is not true. That’s my biggest regret from this.”

The video’s enormous popularity shows that people care, he said, about polar bears and climate change. That’s a good thing. But, he added, “it’s always a matter of trying to turn that care into knowledge, and knowledge into action.”

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