The bear necessities of climate change politics

A photo of two polar bears seemingly stranded on an ice floe has come to symbolise man’s destruction of nature. But is it all that it seems?

‘They cling precariously to the top of what is left of the ice floe, their fragile grip the perfect symbol of the tragedy of global warming. Captured on film by Canadian environmentalists, the pair of polar bears look stranded on chunks of broken ice….’

That is how an article in Australia’s Daily Telegraph, entitled ‘A planet on the edge’, chose to open a discussion of the latest climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1). To view the article, and the photo of the polar bears, click here. The student who took the photograph, however, gives a slightly different account: ‘They were on the ice when we found them and on the ice when we left. They were healthy, fat and seemed comfortable on their iceberg.’

Amanda Byrd, an Australian graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), says she took the picture around three years ago - in the summer. The photograph was not ‘taken by environmentalists’ but as part of a field trip with the university.

Over the past few months the photo has been published widely as a snapshot of the dangers of global warming. Byrd, however, is wary of seeing the photo as direct evidence of manmade climate change. ‘I believe in the climate change phenomena, but for me to say that the image is a direct link, I would be speculating’, she tells spiked. ‘The ice in the Arctic is definitely growing less, and the bears in the migratory route in the Beaufort Sea (where this image was taken, 90 miles off Barrow) have to swim further.’ Byrd is clearly a little miffed that ‘the image you have seen around the world was distributed without my consent, and [with] the wrong byline’.

That hasn’t stopped others from using the image to back up stories about climate change. Science Panel Calls Global Warming ‘Unequivocal’ declared the New York Times recently, in an article illustrated by the polar-bear photo. (The NYT, like others before it, also attributed the photo to the wrong person). Such is the controversy over the photo that getting permission to republish it is very difficult now, hence our provision of the link above for those who want to see it.

It seems that facts such as who took the photo, when it was taken and what it really shows do not matter so long as a Greater Truth is revealed in its republication. And polar bears have become the ‘poster species’ for revealing that truth. As Simon Garfield noted in the UK Observer Magazine: ‘In the past few weeks it has become difficult to open a newspaper or webpage without seeing photographs of the beautiful yellowy-white animals leaping, or lying on sea ice in the Arctic, the newly helpless emblem of climate change.’ (2)

‘Helpless’ is a strange way to describe a half-tonne predator. As the BBC website notes: ‘The polar bear is the largest land carnivore and has a reputation as the only animal that actively hunts humans.’ Stranger still is the transformation of polar bears into the fluffy victims of our age: ‘Polar bears are predominantly carnivorous, and mainly feed on ringed seals and less so on bearded seals. A small part of their diet includes beluga, narwhal, walrus, fish, seabirds, reindeer and carrion.’ (3) It wasn’t so long ago that seals were every green’s favourite victim animal. Now it seems that seals are out, and seal-scoffing bears are in.

While Byrd’s photo has been doing the rounds, the photographic stock libraries of the world have been heavily raided for other ‘polar bear, sea ice’ pictures. Consider the leaflet that fell out of my newspaper, and maybe yours too, on Sunday. ‘THE BIG HEAT: a story of greed, broken promises and wilful ignorance - and you get to write the ending’, it said, leading up to an invitation to join Friends of the Earth (see a section of the leaflet below). The leaflet continues: ‘The warmer climate is killing wildlife and the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, threatening already endangered species like polar bears.’ It’s all accompanied, of course, by a photo of a polar bear alone on broken-up sea ice, looking longingly up towards, well, presumably a helicopter in which the photographer was probably perched.

For all the polar bear stories, it is far from clear that these bears are an endangered species. Even if a warming world did make things more difficult for them, Arctic temperatures have been considerably warmer in the past – and polar bears survived those periods. It’s not even clear that polar bear numbers are in decline.

In January, Kassie Siegel from the conservation lobby group the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ‘The bear is entirely dependent on sea ice, using it as a platform on which to travel, hunt and give birth. Yet each year, as the Arctic warms, the sea ice shrinks. Polar bear populations are already suffering from drowning, starvation and lower cub survival. Absent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the summer sea ice, and the polar bear, may disappear entirely in less than 40 years.’ (4) Yet others disagree – including Mitchell Taylor, a Canadian polar bear biologist.

Last May, Taylor wrote: ‘Climate change is having an effect on the West Hudson population of polar bears, but really, there is no need to panic. Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada, 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present. It is noteworthy that the neighbouring population of southern Hudson Bay does not appear to have declined, and another southern population (Davis Strait) may actually be over-abundant.’ (5)

Counting polar bears must in any event be a rather difficult process. They are well-camouflaged beasts (their fur is actually translucent) and are generally solitary, except when breeding, spending most of their time wandering around a very large, white barren wilderness. Saying anything for certain about them must be pretty tricky.

Yet the recent elevation of the polar bear into a victim of mankind’s recklessness isn’t really based on the facts or figures of polar bear life. Rather, these bears have become a big blank white canvas on to which any fairytale of human destructiveness can be written. To return to the Friends of the Earth leaflet – it says: ‘There are some voices, including slippery politicians and greedy commercial interests, who will tell you there is nothing to worry about.’ Its picture of the polar bear demonstrates otherwise, apparently. This is the Disneyfication of politics: bad, greedy people on one side, and ‘cuddly’, helpless polar bears on the other. How long till we get an animated fable about polar bears to sit alongside the penguin eco-flick Happy Feet?

Whatever the truth about climate change, we need to get beyond these childish tales of two legs bad, four legs good – of wicked man, and innocent beast. If the world is getting warmer due to human action, it may still make perfect sense to continue burning fossil fuels. What we need is a cool-headed and balanced discussion about the costs and benefits of different courses of action, from Kyoto-style emissions cuts and new, non-carbon technologies, to adaptive measures and the promotion of economic growth as a means of coping with problems. And we need to start putting the interests of human beings first.

The debate we’re getting – simple but cynical tales of human greed, backed by cute photos of cuddly creatures – is the polar opposite of the debate we need.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

We told our readers not to panic about polar bear extinction. John Brignell made a list of everything that’s blamed on global warming Nathalie Rothschild said we should leave the hybridisation of animals and humans to the fantasy world of Walt Disney and Mick Hume said the tyranny of anthropomorphism is almost enough to make him an animal loather. Or read more at: spiked issue Animals


(1) A planet on the edge, Daily Telegraph (Australia), 4 February 2007

(2) Living on thin ice, Observer Magazine, 4 March 2007; see discussion of the photo at Riehl World View

(3) Polar Bear, BBC Science and Nature

(4) Don’t wait to save the polar bear, LA Times, 8 January 2007

(5) Polar Bear Politics, Wall Street Journal, 3 January 2007; see also Polar bear numbers up, but rescue continues, National Post (Canada), 6 March 2007

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