How did the polar bear get on the front page?

by Dorothea Born

When I started my PhD on visual climate change communication in popular science magazines between 1992 and 2012, polar bears were already everywhere: on the cover of the Time Magazine, in the WWF’s online shop, where you could buy a polar-bear adoption kid, or on Greenpeace’s advertisements to save the Arctic.

And while other scholars on visual climate change communication argued that it was time to move beyond polar bears, I became more and more intrigued by their ubiquity. I started to wonder: how did the polar bear actually become this “poster child” for climate change? Have polar bears and climate change always been connected? And how are polar bears linked to (pop)cultural meanings, which might explain their success? These were the guiding questions for my research that has recently been published in form of the article “Bearing witness? Polar Bears as Icons for Climate Change Communication in National Geographic.

Uncovering the icon’s history

Investigating the visual climate change discourses of National Geographic I had come across quite a lot of polar bear images, mainly after 2005. But, interestingly, I also found some articles, published throughout the late 1990s until the early 2000s, that were primarily concerned with polar bears and not with climate change. As with all articles in National Geographic, texts, images and captions worked together to show the daily routines of these charismatic animals: swimming, play-fighting, cuddling with their off-spring. All these images staged the polar bears as ‘one of us’, a visual stylistic strategy that I have called “anthropomorphization”: depicting the wild animals as having human features, like showing emotions, caring about their cubs, playing in the snow. These anthropomorphized pictures proved to be highly important for the polar bears’ later iconic function.

An example of an anthropomorphized polar bear – this one looks a bit sad or maybe just tired? Credit: Norber Rosing/National Geographic Creative (1998).

Connecting polar bears to climate change

While these pictures of the anthropomorphized polar bears were published between 1998 and 2004, in articles where climate change was not in the focus, over the course of these articles climate change was increasingly linked to polar bears. First, only as a side note; then, in 2000, as one possible factor threatening the polar bears’ survival; ultimately, in 2005, becoming a major concern. With this, the visual language changed. Polar bears were put in the context of their Arctic environment; the close-ups of family-idyll were exchanged for images that depicted the bears as blending with their snowy surroundings. After 2005, articles were less about polar bears and more about climate change and its consequences for the bears, which were also depicted visually: Dead polar bears, polar bear cubs running away from male bears that threaten to eat them, and, yes, also polar bears seemingly lost on a swimming ice floe.

An example from the transition phase: The background becomes more important and the theme of sheltering and protecting emerges. Credit: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Creative (2005).

So the visual language that had already seemed so iconic and well established when I started my research in 2012, was actually a more recent development as well as the outcome of a process of iconization, through which the bears were established as icons of climate change. Within this process, the earlier phase of anthropomorphic depictions of polar bears was important for their eventual establishment as climate change icons. These images allow the viewers to identify with the cuddly bears, and thus also to feel pity for their fate in a warming world. In a next phase, linking the polar bear to climate change as well as establishing the bear as representative for the threatened Arctic environment served to prepare the last stage of polar bear images, where the lost bear on the ice floe emerges as the icon of climate change.

Iconography of the Polar Bear

This identification also builds on a longer (pop)cultural tradition: the “iconography of the teddy bear”. The Teddy Bear is named after former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who, as the story goes, spared a grizzly on a bear hunt because he pitied the animal. This event did not only lead to the invention of a profitable stuffed toy but also marked a change in our relation to nature, as nature became something not to be feared or exploited but to be pitied and protected (watch John Mooallem’s wonderful Ted-Talk for more about this).

Images and imaginations of polar bears build on this history of the teddy bear and polar bears figured in (pop)culture long before climate change became a hot topic. Yet, today the bears are so intrinsically linked to this issue that it seems impossible to think of them without climate change. E.g. Coca Cola used animated polar bears in their advertisements, but later started, together with the World Wide Fund, an “Arctic Home” campaign where you could buy stuffed polar bears. Another example is Lars, the little polar bear, who happily splashed through my childhood without giving a thought about global warming but is now used in children education to explain climate change.

The icon of the polar bear enables personal identification by evoking emotional consternation through the display of individual suffering. The icon is meant as a stand in for humanity, the drifting ice floe becomes a reference to spaceship earth. Thus polar bear images can serve to raise awareness for global climate change. Yet, these images do not make the wider causes or circumstances of climate change visible and do not foster a more complex understanding of the issue’s implication with global capitalism. Thus, even though they are undeniably fascinating creatures, it might indeed be time to move beyond polar bears.

The – now iconic – shot of the polar bears, seemingly lost on a drifting ice floe. Credit: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Creative (2007).

Dorothea Born is a doctoral student at the Department of Science and Technology Studies. Currently she is a guest researcher at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at Copenhagen University funded by the Marietta Blau grant of the Austrian Agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research (OeAD). Her research interests gravitate around climate change communication in visual cultures, popular science magazines and conceptions of nature.