Who will win the polar bear vote?

It started out as a joke, but now the question of who polar bears would vote for in the US election is getting serious.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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At first it seemed like a joke. Unsolicited emails informed me that I could buy badges (or ‘buttons’, as Americans call them) with the slogan: ‘Polar Bears for Obama.’ Then I heard there was a T-shirt, available from the CafePress online store for $26.99, that said ‘Polar Bears for Obama/Biden’ beneath a picture of a sad-looking polar bear cub. You can also buy shopping bags, bumper stickers and mugs that celebrate the polar bear/Obama love-in. There is a website called PolarBearsForObama.com, which describes itself as a ‘snow roots’ campaign against Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin who is a ‘big meany’.

Good one, I thought. Sometimes elections need to be shaken up with a bit of quirkiness, and if it can be snow-coated, animal-related quirkiness, that’s all the better. Only now I’m not so sure it was a joke after all. The polar bear issue – or what we might call, for want of a better and less insane phrase, ‘the polar bear vote’ – has become big news. Serious newspapers have published articles titled ‘Love polar bears, loathe Sarah Palin’. MSNBC analysed the differences between Palin and her boss John McCain on the ‘polar bear issue’. Palin is referred to as a ‘polar bear hater’, and at an anti-Republican rally in Alaska last week one protester wore a polar bear suit and wielded a sign saying: ‘Polar Bear Moms Say “No” To Palin.’

No doubt some will put this down to the nuttiness of American politics. In fact, it reveals more about the nuttiness of the politics of climate change. The politicisation of the polar bear in the US presidential campaign is hinged on Sarah Palin’s opposition to the listing of polar bears as a ‘threatened species’. In May this year, Palin, as governor of Alaska, said she would sue the federal government for labelling polar bears as officially ‘threatened’. She argued that giving special protection to polar-bear habitats would ‘cripple oil and gas development off [Alaska’s] northern and northwestern coasts’. She also said ‘there is not enough evidence’ to support the listing of polar bears. On this basis, she is now known as a ‘polar bear hater’, and campaigners are claiming that if polar bears had the vote they would definitely support Obama – because, as one baby polar bear ‘says’, ‘My daddy says Sarah Palin doesn’t like us’.

Call me a ‘polar bear hater’ (actually, some people already have) but it just so happens that Sarah Palin has a point. There is not exactly a groundswell of evidence that polar bears are going extinct. In fact, experts claim global polar bear numbers have increased over the past 40 years. In 2001, the World Conservation Union found that of 20 polar bear populations, one or possibly two were in decline, while more than half were stable and two subpopulations were increasing. Its more recent study – in 2006 – found a somewhat less rosy picture, but it wasn’t that bad: of 19 polar bear populations, five were declining, five were stable and two were increasing (there wasn’t enough data to judge the fortunes of the remaining seven populations). The global population has increased from around 5,000 in the 1960s to 25,000 today.

Today’s widespread polar bear concern is shot through with myth and misinformation. One of the ‘nine scientific errors’ found in Al Gore’s horror film An Inconvenient Truth, following a case brought in the UK High Court last year, concerned his claims about polar bears. Gore claimed that a scientific study had discovered that polar bears were drowning because they had to ‘swim long distances to find ice’. Yet the only scientific study Gore’s team could provide as ‘evidence’ was one showing that ‘four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm’. According to Bjorn Lomborg – the sceptical environmentalist – the international tale about polar bears suffering at the hands of ruthless mankind springs from this ‘single sighting of four dead bears the day after an abrupt windstorm’.

It may be true that as a result of hunting and human intervention around the North Pole, polar bears will suffer. But the politics of the polar bear is not a scientific, fact-driven phenomenon – it is a morality tale. It is an anthropomorphic story every bit as daft as Bambi in which the polar bear has become a symbolic victim of man’s wanton destruction of the planet. The polar bear has become the poster boy of the green lobby. It featured heavily in An Inconvenient Truth. Leonardo DiCaprio posed with one on the front cover of a special green issue of Vanity Fair. The bear he posed with – Knut from Berlin Zoo – is having his life story turned into a blockbuster movie, with Suri Cruise (daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) reportedly lined up to provide his voice. Leaflets inviting people to join green movements now come with photos of stranded (or allegedly stranded) polar bears. So do adverts for low-energy light bulbs.

It was not scientific fact that elevated the polar bear to this privileged status of Bambi-style victimhood; it was the human self-loathing of the environmentalist moment. We are expected to believe that our most simple everyday activities – from what light bulbs we use to how many cups of tea we drink – are directly and terribly impacting on polar bears thousands of miles away. So now you find serious green commentators saying things like: ‘The idea that turning on your kettle helps to drown polar bears has never really sunk in with many people.’ Yes, there’s a reason for that – because when I turn on my kettle it has absolutely no impact whatsoever on any polar bear anywhere in the world. And that is a fact.

On the basis of some twisted or at least questionable facts, and conveniently cropped, heart-rending photos, the polar bear has come to represent human guilt and self-doubt. In the past, we Catholics were told not to misbehave because God would be displeased. It was said that if we wasted our food, then a little black baby would die. Today we are told that if we don’t watch our energy use, trim our carbon footprint, follow Al Gore, and make regular donations to various green groups, then polar bears will die. The great white bear of the north has taken the place of God in the clouds as the barometer of human behaviour and morality. The political promotion of this animal represents the denigration of human desire, the subordination of the human will to the animalistic fearmongering of environmentalism.

In a more profound sense, then, the politics of the polar bear represents the disavowal of human interests, which come to be seen as grubby, greedy and destructive. The intervention of the polar bear even into the American election is striking. That many Democrat supporters and radical activists are claiming to act on behalf of the polar bear – even dressing up as bears for anti-Palin protests – shows the extent to which environmentalism threatens to empty politics of its human, self-interested, democratic component. Some people are not representing themselves in the election, but are speaking for the cute (eh?), voiceless polar bear. ‘Polar Bears for Obama’ does not spring from the typically dumb Disneyfication of American politics but from the misanthropic, people-less politics of being green.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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