Yes, that dying polar bear is connected to climate change

By Dawn Stover | December 18, 2017

When wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen posted a picture of an emaciated, exhausted polar bear on Instagram in August, it elicited a huge response. Soon afterward, Nicklen returned to the same spot on Canada’s Baffin Island with filmmakers from his conservation group, SeaLegacy, to shoot video footage of the bear. He said he wanted people to see what a starving polar bear looks like, to give them a glimpse of what lies ahead for this species if human-caused global warming continues to rapidly melt the Arctic’s sea ice—the frozen platform from which polar bears hunt seals, their main food source.

Video of the dying bear, published to social media during the first week of December, has since been viewed by millions of people around the world. It is “gut-wrenching,” “soul-crushing,” and “rips your heart out of your chest.” Nicklen and his colleagues had tears running down their cheeks while their cameras were rolling.

Their viral video triggered several forms of backlash, ranging from animal lovers who said that the filmmakers should have fed or killed the bear, to climate skeptics and newspaper reporters who argued that what “everybody got wrong” was claiming a connection between the bear’s condition and climate change. Although some of the critics were right to point out that individual stories are not proof of population-wide trends, they were dead wrong about the connection between climate change and individual lives—those of humans as well as bears.

Eyes wide open. Like the filmmakers, I could not watch the starving bear without sobbing. Near death, the weary animal drags its back legs as it tries to walk. The saddest part for me, because it exemplifies what humans have done to this animal’s habitat, is when the bear searches for food in a rusty trash can and chews on a piece of foam from the seat of a snowmobile.

But I’m not just crying for one bear. I’m crying for all the species of living things that humans are crushing beneath our gigantic carbon footprints. I’m crying for my fellow humans, too: According to findings in the most recent Climate Vulnerability Monitor, published in 2012, climate change is already causing 400,000 premature deaths annually. I’m crying for future generations, for the estimated three in four people who will face the threat of lethal heat events by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The greater the delay in responding to climate change, the greater the risk to human lives and livelihoods.

Whether it’s a picture of hurricane-ravaged Texas, or a home burned to the ground in California, or a bear dying in Canada, we should not turn away from images that show us what we can expect if we allow climate change to continue unabated. We need to see, hear, and perhaps most important, feel the reality of what lies ahead.

The backlash. Some viewers were angered by the video, criticizing the filmmakers for not doing more to either save the bear or put it out of its misery. Cristina Mittermeier, co-founder of SeaLegacy and one of the National Geographic photographers on the scene, explained that she and her colleagues were too far from any village to haul hundreds of pounds of seal meat, that they were not carrying weapons, and that it would have been dangerous to approach the dying bear.

Of course, one picture does not a trend make. That’s the point made by climate skeptics and other critics who said that the bear might have been dying from a health issue or injury, rather than starvation, and that in any case a starving bear might have nothing to do with climate change. Some dubbed the video “fake news.” Others called it a public relations ploy by environmental activists, and took issue with one of seven hashtags that Mittermeier included in an Instagram post: #FaceofClimateChange. The critics posted images of fat, healthy bears taken in other places.

This debate is not new. A couple of years ago, people argued over whether a photo of a severely emaciated polar bear in Norway was “the new face of climate change.” More than a decade ago, climate skeptics said it was wrong for the film An Inconvenient Truth to show a lone polar bear struggling to swim in an iceless Arctic ocean and suggest that its plight was connected to climate change.

Why the video wasn’t misleading. Accusing Nicklen and Mittermeier of misleading viewers is itself misleading. In their posts to social media, the photographers emphasized that they were not drawing any conclusions about the bear’s death: “It is true that we don’t know what caused this animal to starve but we are certain that unless we curb carbon emissions, sea ice will continue to disappear and many more bears will starve,” they wrote.

The scientific consensus supports that view. In its final Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan, released in January of this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified the primary threat to polar bears as the “loss of sea-ice habitat due to the effects of climate change and the anticipated decline in marine prey.” The plan goes on to explain what is needed to save polar bears: “The single-most important action for the conservation of polar bears is reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary cause of Arctic warming and the loss of the bear’s sea-ice habitat. Without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered.”

Although polar bears are doing well in some places, those populations living in places with seasonal ice, like Baffin Island, are at great risk from climate change. The Arctic is melting faster than ever—at twice the rate of other regions, according to an annual Arctic Report Card released earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A National Geographic explainer accompanying the video noted that the bear’s skeletal appearance and atrophied muscles are indicative of starvation, that the bear had no scars or other visible signs of injury, and that polar bears are not prone to disease. While the bear in the video could have been afflicted by something other than starvation, that seems at least as speculative as the filmmakers’ theory that the bear was starving to death.

Do the lives of individual animals matter? It is sad to see a polar bear slowly dying. It would be sad to see a seal pup being torn apart by a bear, too. Such events happen all the time, although they are rarely witnessed by millions of people. Like three gray whales getting trapped by pack ice—as happened near Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1988, triggering a massive media event and an expensive rescue attempt—the death of one bear is a common and natural occurrence. But as with the Point Barrow whales, the Baffin Island polar bear is giving many people a new perspective on its species and the fate of the world.

An individual dead bear is like an individual storm: It can’t be easily attributed to climate change. Increasingly, though, scientists can demonstrate the degree to which global warming makes the odds of extreme weather events and polar bear deaths more likely. For example, global warming made Hurricane Harvey’s rain three times more likely, according to a recent assessment by scientists from the Worldwide Weather Attribution effort. And the odds that a starving polar bear is starving because of climate change keep growing.

The Washington Post article about the bear video begins by reminding readers: “The world’s tragedies often have images that end up defining them: A five-year old screaming in Iraq after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers. A starving child being stalked by a vulture during a ruthless famine in Sudan.” The bear footage, the article said, “has served a similar purpose: as a rallying cry and stand-in for a largely unmitigated environmental disaster.”

An Associated Press photographer’s image of the naked and badly burned 9-year-old Vietnamese “Napalm Girl” did not depict a strike by US warplanes (the napalm bomb was dropped by a South Vietnamese pilot flying an American-made aircraft). The photo probably did not represent the beginning of a shift in American public opinion about the Vietnam War, nor did it bring the war to a swift close. Nevertheless, the emotional impact of the photograph—its fundamental truthfulness about the inhumanity of war—is undeniable.

A fundamental truth lies at the heart of the polar bear video, too. I only wish that photographers would be equally diligent in documenting the lives of children who are dying at this very moment because of malnutrition, diarrhea, and other impacts directly associated with our warming atmosphere. They, too, are the faces of climate change.

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