By Kate Wang '20
A forlorn polar bear stands on a small piece of ice drifting in the water. Lonely and starving, the polar bear wistfully stares into the camera, deeply saddening most viewers. This image has become universally recognized as a symbol for global warming, climate change, and the conservation movement as a whole. How did people come up with this animal, one that can be fairly dangerous to humans, as a symbol that evokes sadness and pity?
The link between polar bears and climate change grew in popularity during the Bush administration’s decision to list the bears as threatened instead of endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Though they recognized that the decreasing number of polar bears was due to habitat loss, the administration refused to acknowledge that the melting ice caps were directly influenced by human-caused rising global temperatures and did not include legislation to help protect the habitats. Outspoken environmentalists, angered by the administration’s actions, publicized the plight of the polar bears were, sending it on its way to becoming a climate change icon.
One reason the symbol of the polar bear became so well-recognized is the emotional appeal of the situation: sad, lonely, starving, perhaps even with cubs. A bear is a characterizable figure that people can sympathize with. A pathos-filled image like this is far more successful in catching the general public’s attention (especially those with little knowledge about climate change) than perhaps a graph of rising global temperatures or a more technical, scientific figure that many people might not understand.
This connection opened pathways for communication about climate change. Organizations and educational groups could use the image to grab the attention of their audiences to help raise awareness about and educate people about climate change. For instance, magazines like TIME and Newsweek and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund use these alarming images to convey their messages about climate change as seen below.
While the symbol of the polar bear draws attention to global warming and helps build an understanding that the Earth is experiencing rising temperatures and sea levels, it creates a very narrow image of the problem. Although global warming is a huge component of climate change, there are also many other changes to the environment (like harsher weather patterns, drought, and the chemical makeup of our atmosphere and oceans) that are equally as important to consider.
This incomplete representation of climate change creates opportunities for misunderstandings and, for people whom this imagery is an introduction to climate change, doesn’t provide a holistic view of the problem. So while the image of the polar bear can help people understand that there is a problem, it doesn’t necessarily help them understand what the problem is. As a result, these people cannot make fully educated decisions about their climate change beliefs and more importantly about how they can take action to help solve the problem.
Because the polar bear is only associated with one facet of climate change, it is easier for climate change skeptics to criticize arguments made from that point of view. For instance, the polar bear symbolism represents the problem as global warming, and as a result, ice caps melting and seas rising. However, somewhere else in the world, the effects of climate change could manifest themselves in more extreme weather resulting in stronger and colder snow storms. Thus, the generalization to global warming can have a negative effect on the argument for climate change as a whole.
I believe that the image of the stranded polar bear has played an important role in opening the conversation about climate change. It has acted as a stepping stone to help people engage in questions about global warming and its implications. Although it has limits in the scope of the message it conveys, it begins a conversation that can ultimately deepen and evolve into the well-rounded dialogue that is necessary in bringing people together to mitigate climate change.
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.