David Merron Photography

Bear Witness

The ubiquitous, imperfect signifier of climate change

March 24, 2020

In late summer 2015, I stood on the deck of a small cruise ship in the Canadian Arctic and saw a polar bear. It was my first time encountering one up close. The bear was lonely and beautiful, adrift on a snow-covered slab of ice in the open sea. The water beyond the floe was cold and dark, but around the bear, where a hidden mass of ice below the surface captured light, there was turquoise.

I had seen other bears on this trip, some just vanilla ice cream scoops on red-brown tundra in the far distance. A few were distinct: one scaled a cliff to rob nesting seabirds of their eggs; another swam by as passengers crammed into the small inflatable boats we used for shore landings, its ears and snout barely visible above the water. But this sighting was different. The ship’s PA system had crackled in the dining hall as we all sat eating our lunch; a crew member announced that there was a polar bear ahead. We’d abandoned our soup bowls and stampeded to our cabins to grab puffy down jackets and cameras; the captain had slowed the ship to a crawl and then brought it to a full stop, coming to rest with the gentlest bump against the berg that held the bear.

Now a hundred tourists packed the deck in near-perfect silence, our only sounds the artificial clicks of digital cameras and the occasional sigh. The bear glanced up at us briefly, sniffed, and then dismissed us, returning his attention to a disemboweled seal that lay bloody on the snow beside him. He worked at the carcass, tearing off dark strips of tough blubber with his long yellow teeth, ignoring a handful of gulls that hovered eagerly nearby. We stood and watched the bear butcher that seal for more than an hour. We were close enough to hear the scrape of his claws on the ice, close enough to see that the seal’s eyeballs had popped out of their sockets and now dangled in the snow on long tendrils of nerve tissue.

As I observed the scene, I realized that I was witnessing a kind of reversal: the real animal behind the iconography—that is, the image of a solitary bear on a dwindling ice throne. In the age of climate change, the polar bear has become the mascot for a planetary crisis. With its crucial habitat, Arctic sea ice, in inexorable and well-documented retreat, it seems a useful—and, to those who haven’t seen one maul anything, adorable—symbol for an otherwise abstract warming process.

The polar bear as climate change symbol is ubiquitous. A Google search yields links to countless stories from CNN, the BBC, CBC, and many more outlets, alongside search suggestions for “starving,” “global warming,” “sad,” “skinny,” and “dying.” A notable example came in 2006, with the big-eyed cartoon polar bear swimming hopelessly in search of vanished sea ice in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The appeal of polar bears has been attributed to the “identifiable-victim effect.” As Kate Manzo, a geographer at Newcastle University, writes in a 2010 paper, “The basic idea is that numbers (or ‘dry statistics’) fail to either spark emotion or motivate action in the same way as images do.”

Bears, in other words, are more compelling than bar graphs. Manzo charts the rise of the polar bear as an embodiment of climate change in connection with a few near-simultaneous events in the mid-2000s. One was a viral image of two Alaskan polar bears that seemed to be “howling against injustice” as ice crumbled around them. (The image was shot in 2004 but received its widest circulation when the Canadian Ice Service released it alongside a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) Another was the sudden global celebrity of Knut, the Berlin Zoo’s baby polar bear, born in 2006. As a cub, he was not only photographed and relentlessly documented by webcam but also trademarked, televised, and commemorated in everything from ringtones to stamps to credit cards. Knut even posed for Annie Leibovitz, landing the cover of Vanity Fair.

With polar bears, journalists had stumbled on a shorthand for climate change—something specific, with emotional heft, that could be used to stand in for a slow-moving and almost invisible crisis. For millions of people who would never lay eyes on one in real life, let alone on a shrinking shard of ice, the polar bear would signify a looming disaster that otherwise felt distant, even irrelevant. But the polar bear, hungry and paddling on, couldn’t tell the whole story.

I realized that I was witnessing a kind of reversal: the real animal behind the iconography.


If the polar bear capped the modern age of climate journalism, we can trace the beginnings of that era to the summer of 1988. It was unusually hot. Since the early years of the twentieth century, scientists had discussed the possibility that the planet would eventually be warmed by an excess of carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere. By the fifties, the first long-term data-gathering projects to document the increase in CO2 had been launched. But public awareness was limited, and news outlets had given the threat only occasional notice. The New York Times published its first reference to a terrestrial “greenhouse effect” on August 2, 1970, reporting that “its future consequences are unknown.” (A story from 1961 had referred to the same effect on Venus.) Through the sixties and seventies and into the eighties, global warming was “a prediction about something that might happen,” says Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University who specializes in the story of climate change. “Most people think it’s still pretty far away and they don’t want to put a date on it.”

But a hearing on June 23, 1988, changed that. Dr. James Hansen, the director of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, appeared before the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Capitol Hill. Forty-seven years old, with a thinning brown comb-over, he wore a tan suit and a dark reddish tie. Seated before the committee, he pulled a pair of microphones in close, leaned forward, and explained his findings. He offered three key conclusions: First, that in all recorded history the earth had never been hotter than it was in 1988. Second, that the planet’s warming could now be attributed “with a high degree of confidence” to the greenhouse gas effect. And third, that the effect was already pronounced enough that it might explain the incidence of extreme weather events. “The greenhouse effect has been detected,” Hansen said, “and it is changing our climate now.” In a highly visible forum, with reach beyond the scientific community, the climate discussion had turned abruptly from speculation to something concrete.

Hansen’s role was to share his research on global temperature patterns, not to prescribe policy. The presiding senator on the committee, Timothy Wirth of Colorado, picked up where the scientist left off: “The global climate is changing as the earth’s atmosphere gets warmer,” he said after Hansen had testified. “Now the Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend and how we are going to cope with the changes that may already be inevitable.” The next day, the front page of the New York Times was topped by the headline “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.”

A few months later, Discover made global warming its cover story. Andrew Revkin, the author of the piece, used Hansen’s testimony as the jumping-off point for a wider look at climate science. The magazine’s eye-catching front depicted Earth glowing white-hot and melting into a puddle, overlaid with the lines “The Greenhouse Effect: This Summer Was Merely a Warm-Up.” The next year, 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, which would become known as the first mainstream book on climate change. It seemed as though something was changing, that attention was being paid.

And then came the backlash. Hansen’s testimony triggered a rapid public relations response from the fossil fuel industry and other interested parties; that reaction and its fallout were the subject of Oreskes’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt. “Sadly, that’s when the ‘both sides’ false equivalence kicks in,” she told me. “Because journalists don’t realize what’s happening. They don’t get it. They don’t understand that this is a disinformation campaign. And frankly, most of the scientists don’t understand it either. So the scientists don’t call it out.” That old journalistic touchstone of “balance” provided an ideal platform for companies like Exxon and BP to distort the science of the greenhouse gas effect. In a 2008 paper on televised news coverage of climate change between 1995 and 2004, Maxwell Boykoff, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that 70 percent of American news segments dealing with climate offered the kind of “balanced” coverage that ultimately obscured the scientific consensus.

In 2001, the George W. Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty that had offered a road map for emissions reductions and emphasized the contributions of industrialized nations. Kendra Pierre-Louis, who is now a reporter on the climate change desk at the New York Times, was in college at Cornell at the time. She remembers a series of campus protests and sit-ins where students spoke out against Bush’s decision and called for the university to implement Kyoto even if the federal government would not. Pierre-Louis read The End of Nature and was shocked to realize that it had been published so many years earlier. “I don’t want to call it a blackout rage moment,” she said. “But I was just very confused. Everyone seemed to have known about this for over a decade and there didn’t seem to be a lot of traction.” By the mid-aughts, that’s where things stood: scientists were largely in agreement, the public was largely unengaged, and journalists were struggling to connect the two. Enter the polar bear.

“I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time,” Gore says in the opening minutes of An Inconvenient Truth, “and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across.” Back in college, Gore had studied under one of those early CO2 data gatherers, Roger Revelle. So after Gore’s loss in the 2000 election, he returned to a project he had put aside during his vice presidency: giving public presentations about global warming. A touring slideshow led to the documentary, an Academy Award, a Nobel Peace Prize (awarded jointly to Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and a critical milestone in the public’s awareness of climate change. I remember the image he put on-screen: the animated polar bear, stranded on a shrinking iceberg, the open ocean menacing all around. As Gore’s voice-over describes polar bears “swimming long distances…to find the ice,” he transfers the bear’s sense of crisis to the viewer. The image cemented my awareness of the polar bear trope.

Journalism’s wide embrace of the polar bear was logical, to a point. It “leaned on the language of conservation,” Pierre-Louis said. The polar-bear-on-sea-ice image was similar to save-the-whales campaigns and dolphin-safe tuna can labeling and the World Wildlife Fund’s panda logo. The overwhelming problems of the environment could be channeled through friendly megafauna.

But that focus also had limitations. For one thing, it led to several news cycles, over the years, of wrangling about the precise connections between viral images—of a sad-looking bear, for instance, that was most likely dying of starvation or injury at the moment the photojournalist’s camera snapped—and the effects of climate change. “I do think, in retrospect, there were some problems with it,” said Boykoff, whose recent book, Creative (Climate) Communication, is about effective ways to engage the public in environmental science. The polar bear, so far from most people, made it appear that climate change was “something that was distant from us,” Boykoff added. “And so there is an argument that could be made that it did have this kind of stifling impact on engagement. Whereas if we really talked about how it’s affecting urban centers, how it’s affecting our daily lives, how it’s really an intersectional set of challenges, not just a single issue, and it permeates everything from land-use decision-making to immigration policy in the United States—that livens up all kinds of discussions that I think people find relevant.”

“For communities of color, the stereotype has always been that environmentalists care more about animals than they do about them.”

Bear bonanza: Knut’s celebrity advanced from journalism to stuffed toys. Günter Peters / Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

A half hour or so into An Inconvenient Truth, Gore rattles off a statistic about the ten hottest years on record to date, noting how recent they all were. “The hottest of all,” Gore says, “was 2005.” That year saw what were historically high temperatures in a number of US cities—“including, incidentally, New Orleans.” We know what he is teeing up: Hurricane Katrina, a flooded New Orleans, nearly two thousand people dead, and the haunting imagery that most of us will remember from the hot, swampy days that followed the storm. Stranded residents waving for rescue from baking rooftop islands, the displaced hordes packed into the Superdome, Sean Penn in his skiff. Gore quotes Winston Churchill: “We are entering a period of consequences.”

I didn’t connect Hurricane Katrina with climate change when it struck the Gulf Coast, or for many years afterward. Neither did the writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, who lived through the storm. “Not at all, at the time,” she told me recently. “And I don’t think most people down here did either—I don’t remember seeing a lot of people make that argument, certainly not on TV.” (As is so often the case, there’s more room for coverage to diverge in print: On August 30, the day after the storm hit New Orleans, the New York Times ran a news story disputing the idea that Katrina was fueled by climate change. The day after that, the Times ran an opinion piece that began, “The hurricane that struck Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming.”)

Attuned to stories about the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about the Danziger Bridge shootings, and about Kanye West’s famous declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” I thought of the aftermath of Katrina as a story about race and racism, about infrastructure and inequality, about political indifference—and about the sheer emotional and financial and logistical difficulty of abandoning one’s home. But the story of climate change is the story of all those things, too. It’s not as simple as a white bear on shrinking sea ice.

Last fall, Heglar published an essay in Guernica that linked her family’s experience during Katrina; the threat of climate change; and the story of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955. “Katrina descended the day after the 50th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till,” Heglar points out in her piece. “The climate crisis is covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy,” she continues. “It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically ‘left out,’ but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers. I can’t help but see how those same layers complicate and exacerbate the crisis.” When I spoke with her, Heglar compared using pictures of polar bears to tell the story of climate change to focusing on bombs to tell the story of war. “You need to show the impacts on people,” she said. “In particular, for communities of color, the stereotype has always been that environmentalists care more about animals than they do about them.”

As for the bears themselves, they are declining in some regions, but certain populations are stable and, in parts of the world, their numbers are increasing. Even as it becomes increasingly evident that they might not make for the best climate change symbol, the trope remains prevalent. I recently noticed that, to illustrate the impact of climate change on communities in northern British Columbia, a Vancouver paper had run a photo of a polar bear dipping a reluctant paw in the water. Surely the editors could have come up with some local imagery for the story, I’d thought. There are no polar bears in British Columbia.

Some journalists, however, are trying to pivot in a human direction. Last October, Fiona Shields, the photo editor of The Guardian, published a note to the paper’s readers under the headline “Why we’re rethinking the images we use for our climate journalism.” She wrote: “Often, when signalling environmental stories to our readers, selecting an image of a polar bear on melting ice has been the obvious—though not necessarily appropriate—choice. These images tell a certain story about the climate crisis but can seem remote and abstract—a problem that is not a human one, nor one that is particularly urgent.” From now on, instead of reaching reflexively for a stock image of a polar bear on an ice floe (the most convenient option in this era of shrinking time and money), The Guardian promised to strive to find human-focused images to tell its stories. “We need new imagery for new narratives,” Shields wrote. “This can be challenging in a fast-paced newsroom but it is important to be nuanced and creative with search terms to unearth photography beyond the usual keywords of climate change, heatwave and floods.”

The New York Times’ climate desk is seeking out alternatives, too. Recently, the Times used a high-end infrared camera to create a visual of a methane leak in Texas, normally an invisible event. Pierre-Louis pointed out that environmental journalists have vastly better tools at their disposal than they did during her college days—tools that can help make symbolic bear-on-ice imagery obsolete. Attribution science—used to determine the role of climate change in any major weather disaster—has progressed enough that researchers can calculate, almost in real time, the likelihood that a given event would have occurred without the influence of global warming. Such was the case during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, and—close to home for me—when a retreating glacier caused the abrupt and total disappearance of a Yukon river, the world’s first known example of “river piracy” that can be firmly attributed to climate change.

“I don’t think there’s an ideal image that is out there to be discovered,” Manzo, the Newcastle University geographer, who has continued to study the impact of climate change media, told me. “It’s: What is it that you want to visualize? What is it you want to show? What message have you got that you want to get across?” Different aspects of the problem will require different points of focus, and we’re only just starting to see a wider array of perspectives, with new and different ways of getting at the story.

That day on the ship, we eventually left the polar bear to his meal. The captain revved up the engines and motored on through a mostly ice-free Northwest Passage. We travelers returned to our abandoned lunches, and then dispersed to the hot tub or the bar. Beautiful and terrible as the polar bear had been, we had to leave him behind.

Eva Holland is a freelance writer based in Canada’s Yukon. Her first book, Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, comes out in April.