A Starving Polar Bear & Climate Change

A National Geographic magazine photographer Cristina Mittermeier and fellow photographer Paul Nicklen had to explain how their images (video, still photography) of an obviously starving polar bear were  presented as evidence of climate change.

“Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change. Documenting its effects on wildlife hasn’t been easy.” “With this image, we thought we had found a way to help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like. We were, perhaps, naive. The picture went viral — and people took it literally.”

As reported by Pauline Dedaj at Fox News: “The image she is referencing shows an emaciated polar bear with hardly any fur covering its bony frame. In a video that was also taken of the bear, it can be seen slowly moving through the terrain, rummaging through an empty can.

By the time National Geograpic shared the video, the message was direct about climate change and the polar bear’s condition. “The first line of the National Geographic video said, ‘This is what climate change looks like’ — with ‘climate change’ then highlighted in the brand’s distinctive yellow. In retrospect, National Geographic went too far with the caption.”

An estimated 2.5 billion people viewed the emaciated polar bear: “It became the most viewed video on National Geographic’s website — ever,” said Mittermeier.

The Fox News article points out the facts, that there could be “a number of reason besides climate change that could’ve led to the animal’s condition, including age, illness or even injury.”

The photographer Mittermeier admits that she couldn’t “say that this bear was starving because of climate change.” “Perhaps we made a mistake in not telling the full story — that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future and that we didn’t know what had happened to this particular polar bear.”

The photographer says that her image became another example of “environmentalist exaggeration,” but added that her intentions were “clear” and that if she had the opportunity to share “a scene like this one” again, she would.

Emaciated Polar Bear

She explained the background in an article, Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong,” published in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic.

The lesson learned here is that when you are advocating for a cause–to save the environment, to combat climate change–you must be frank and open about the visual images used to support your cause. Otherwise you can be accused of being too biased or propagandistic in your storytelling.