National Geographic's Polar Bear Problem

Polar Bear - National Geographic.jpg

The health and welfare of polar bear populations has emerged as one of the most powerful proxy debates in the climate wars—as evinced most obviously by the proliferation of polar-bear suits among environmental activists but also by the adoption by influential media of an explicitly anti-"denialist" position on the matter of the bears' capacity to survive in a warming Arctic. "Furry, button-nosed and dependent on sea ice for their survival, polar bears have long been poster animals for climate change," New York Times writer Erica Goode opined in April 2018. "But at a time when established climate science is being questioned at the highest levels of government, climate denialists are turning the charismatic bears to their own uses, capitalizing on their symbolic heft to spread doubts about the threat of global warming."

Goode is dead right about the bears' symbolic heft, which is why it is a matter of no small consequence that National Geographic yesterday posted a carefully worded mea culpa about the sickly-polar-bear video it posted in December 2017.

According to Cristina Mittermeier, the photographer/ explorer who wrote yesterday's National Geographic piece, her partner, photographer Paul Nicklen, first observed the sick bear during a "scouting trip" to Somerset Island. In keeping with their "mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change," she and Nicklen returned to the site to find the same bear "lying on the ground, like an abandoned rug, nearly lifeless." They photographed and filmed it at length, watched it swim away, and posted their now-famous video clip to Instagram. National Geographic re-posted the video, adding the caption “This is what climate change looks like." The clip was ultimately viewed by 2.5 billion people, making it the most popular video ever posted on the National Geographic site and, arguably, a PR coup for the anti-denialists.

National Geographic admitted in a sidebar to the Mittermeier article that it "went too far in drawing a definitive connection between climate change and a particular starving polar bear." This is, to say the least, a major concession. Mittermeier herself was less categorical, stating only that she regrets having "lost control of the narrative" to the magazine's editors:

When Paul posted the video on Instagram, he wrote, “This is what starvation looks like.” He pointed out that scientists suspect polar bears will be driven to extinction in the next century. He wondered whether the global population of 25,000 polar bears would die the way this bear was dying. He urged people to do everything they could to reduce their carbon footprint and prevent this from happening. But he did not say that this particular bear was killed by climate change.

For the record, here's what Nicklen actually wrote in that original Instagram post:

This is what starvation looks like. The muscles atrophy. No energy. It’s a slow, painful death. When scientists say polar bears will be extinct in the next 100 years, I think of the global population of 25,000 bears dying in this manner. There is no band aid solution. There was no saving this individual bear. People think that we can put platforms in the ocean or we can feed the odd starving bear. The simple truth is this—if the Earth continues to warm, we will lose bears and entire polar ecosystems. This large male bear was not old, and he certainly died within hours or days of this moment. But there are solutions. We must reduce our carbon footprint, eat the right food, stop cutting down our forests, and begin putting the Earth—our home—first.

Mittermeier knows, of course, that she is splitting hairs (as do the editors and publishers of National Geographic). And why would she not? Her mission is not to illuminate scientific truth but to "help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like," as she put it. "We hope our images of this dying bear moved the conversation about climate change to the forefront, where it must remain until we solve this planetary problem. Until then, when we come across a scene like this one, we will again share it with the world—and take pains to be sure that our intentions are clear and the narrative remains our own." Mittermeier emerges from the furor a hero to environmentalists everywhere, one who, even now, under extraordinary public pressure, refuses to renounce her convictions. Again, who can criticize her for that?

National Geographic, however, may never fully recover from the fiasco—not merely because 2.5 billion people were misled, but because the credibility of one of the world's most iconic media brands (not to mention the prestige of the 130-year-old National Geographic Society) was so egregiously compromised. "THIS is what climate change looks like," Canada's own minister of the environment Catherine McKenna tweeted after she watched the emaciated-bear video. "Climate change is real. As are its impacts. Time to stand up for our polar bears and our planet."

Over the next couple of weeks, Mittermeier's revelations about what actually happened on Somerset Island are certain to reverberate powerfully on both sides of the climate wars. The skeptics will claim victory, the activists will regroup and soldier on. Without question, the collateral damage to those, like Minister McKenna, who have an enormous political and personal stake in the presumed unimpeachability of "climate science" will be substantial.

It is not National Geographic alone that has sustained this black eye.