How Polar Bears Became Avatars for the Climate Crisis
Kale Williams’s new book, ‘The Loneliest Polar Bear,’ offers readers an adorable polar bear cub—and a roving, clear-eyed exploration of climate change and how the bears captured the public imagination
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In captivity, we give polar bears names and personas. Take, for example, Gus, who resided at the Central Park Zoo and became the beloved mascot of New Yorkers due to his neurotic tendencies. Or Knut, of the Berlin Zoo, who appeared on an ice floe on the cover of Vanity Fair alongside Leonardo DiCaprio (and whose life in the public eye and untimely death earned a comparison to Marilyn Monroe). And then there’s Nora, the unlikely protagonist of journalist Kale Williams’s new book, The Loneliest Polar Bear.
The story begins with Nora’s birth at Ohio’s Columbus Zoo in 2015. Just a couple days after she emerged into the world, her mother abandoned her, and a group of keepers, veterinarians, and even a nutritionist swooped in to save her. (Collectively, they became known as the Nora Moms.) Polar bear cubs born into captivity already face long survival odds: only about a third of them make it to adulthood. Those odds go down without a parent. But baby bears can also be a boon for zoos, drawing attention and ticket sales. (Hamish, the first cub to be born in the United Kingdom in 25 years, set off a frenzy with his birth in 2017.) So although her survival was by no means assured, Nora became a social media celebrity in infancy, starting with a video the zoo posted of her very first feeding.
Nora was also born into a conflict over what she represents: “Over the years, polar bears have become a symbol,” The New York Times reported last year, “both for those who argue that urgent action on global warming is needed and for those who claim that climate change is not happening.” Or, as Williams puts it, “she and her species had become the sad-eyed face of climate change.” So alongside a central narrative that tracks Nora into adolescence, The Loneliest Polar Bear also situates polar bears—wild and captive—within a sprawling discussion of the origins and consequences of the climate crisis. Polar bears, after all, have become some of its most powerful avatars, providing a captivating lens through which the public can understand, and empathize with, the consequences of a warming world.
“They lend themselves well to storytelling,” Williams told me recently. In the book, he attributes this, in part, to the “number of seemingly contradictory qualities” they display. “They are endearing and ferocious,” he writes. “Strong as individuals but fragile as a species. They are to be feared, but also feared for. They come from a part of the world that few will ever see with their own eyes.” They’re intelligent and visually striking. The bears have long figured in traditions and taboos observed by the Indigenous people who live in the Arctic: for some Inupiat hunters, the first polar bear kill is considered a rite of passage. In the past, the hunter would isolate himself from friends and family afterward for at least a day. “These animals have been the subject of folklore forever—since people have been making folklore,” he told me.
These traits also make Nora a fitting subject for Wiliams’s wide-ranging book, which grew out of a five-part series he reported for the Oregonian/OregonLive in 2017. To learn more about her origins, Williams retraced the bear’s family tree, eventually following it to Wales, Alaska. There the reader meets an Inupiat hunter named Gene Rex Agnaboogok, who fell into a polar bear den in 1988 and orphaned Nora’s father, Nanuq. The book also follows Nora as she traverses the country: after spending the first months of her life around humans, the Columbus Zoo sent her to Portland, Oregon, in 2016 in hopes that an older bear, Tasul, could be a kind of mentor. The following year, after Tasul’s death, she moved to Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo. (This year she’s returning to Portland once more.) At the same time, Williams crafts a narrative in which the story of a polar bear is also one of history and geology. He draws a straight line from the “colonial mindset” that white settlers imported when they arrived in the Arctic in the 18th century, “which dictated that the natural world was a resource waiting to be converted into capitalism,” to the extractive treatment of both the Indigenous population and the environment. “Every square inch of the planet is smudged with human fingerprints,” he writes.
So Nora’s tale, in which she’s rescued and raised by keepers and vets, becomes a metaphor for the larger way in which the fates of polar bears are bound up in human actions. In the 1970s and 1980s, polar bear science and climate science began to converge. They became primary subjects of research and conservation when five nations, including the U.S., signed the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and embarked on a project to accurately count the bears’ 19 subpopulations. By the following decade, when climate scientist James Hansen gave landmark testimony before Congress about the greenhouse effect, it became clear that rising global temperatures would impact sea ice, imperiling the people and animals living on it. Polar bears, already a powerful vehicle for storytelling, were wrapped right up in the crisis. “Their entire habitat was at risk, and the threat wasn’t any one thing,” Williams writes. That risk was central to the argument for giving them protection under the Endangered Species Act, which they were granted in 2008. And it has only increased.
In captivity, polar bears are frequently treated as a kind of ambassador for a vulnerable environment. They “give the public a reason to care,” Williams writes. “Their stories have power, and few animals offer as compelling a story as Nora, an abandoned cub, raised by human hands, who had overcome obstacle after obstacle.” But the species has also become a target for a subset of climate deniers. Skeptics tend to focus on unknowns, and since polar bear populations are difficult to study, they maintain that the bears are doing just fine, actually. And the disinformation internet is recursive. A 2018 study cited in The Loneliest Polar Bear found that among the climate-denial blogs its authors examined, about 80 percent attributed their information about polar bears back to another, specific climate-denial blog called Polar Bear Science. The emphasis on one species “gives people who are wont to argue in bad faith an opening to do so,” Williams told me. “When you use just one species to illustrate this big and vast and multidimensional problem, of course there’s something that’s going to be lost.” It also risks losing sight of the real source of the problem. To help help galvanize visitors, signage around Nora’s enclosure in Columbus offered tips on limiting personal carbon emissions. But individual actions have done less to contribute to the problem than energy corporations, which have long waged a campaign of disinformation aiming to convince the public that climate change isn’t such a big deal.
The threat to polar bears as a species is one consequence of a warming planet; conservation initiatives cannot relieve their plight without taking on the root causes of climate change. This also seems to mean that to take the polar bear as the figurehead of the crisis is to accept that the crisis is systemic. “It’s that context that I think really, for me, brought into focus how bad the problem is,” Williams told me. The Loneliest Polar Bear demonstrates how Nora and her kind are part of a much wider constellation of social and environmental issues. It’s not necessarily an optimistic book, but it does lay out in clear terms what’s necessary: “Only change on a systemic scale,” Williams writes, “will stave off the worst of what’s to come.”