16th Jan 2019


Arctic warming alert moves on from polar bear symbol

  • Contrary to public opinion: Polar bears are not actually going extinct due to climate change. But they are suffering major threats. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The widespread image of the polar bear and the threat of its extinction is perhaps the world's most powerful image of climate change, but for at least one of the large environmentalist groups behind it, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) this image has become a dilemma.

According to UN scientific assessments the polar bear does not face extinction, and the common understanding that it does now stands in the way of more nuanced communication about climate change in the Arctic.

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  • The impacts of climate change on the Arctic has a huge impact on weather systems and on ocean acidification. (Photo: NN -

"When the symbol gets bigger than the region itself and people don't realise that the polar bear is just one piece of a whole diverse web of life in the Arctic, then it can become almost a barrier," Leanne Clare, senior manager of communications of the WWF's Arctic Programme, told EUobserver.

"What we are trying to do now is to help people understand that the polar bear is an important part within the region and that it is a part of a very intricate and fragile web of life in the Arctic that is at risk.

"We have to talk about that for whatever reason people have a huge attachment to polar bears, and then figure out how to utilise this attachment and get people to go beyond this and attach themselves to the Arctic region as such," she said.

"If we cannot do that, I think it will become much more difficult for us, because then all people want to talk about is: when is it going to go extinct? And if it is not going to go extinct, what is the problem? So rather than always running around with the emergency lights going we need to get people to act more proactively and save this region from climate change."

From bears to people

The polar bear dilemma was on the agenda at the annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik attended by some 2,500 politicians, diplomats and scientist.

Here, the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs organised discussions under the heading 'From Polar Bears to People: Getting the Arctic Climate Change Story Right.'

The shift in WWF's global communication was presented earlier this month in Rovaniemi, Finland, where some 400 scientists gathered to discuss Arctic biodiversity under the auspices of Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) of the Arctic Council.

In this group it was well known that the polar bear does not face extinction.

"The polar bear is not going extinct," Fernando Ugarte, a member of the UN's Polar Bear Specialist Group and head of department at Greenland's Institute of Natural Resources, told EUobserver.

"We have been involved in the analysis that tell us that the reduction of sea ice will lead to a decline in the total population of polar bears of about 30 percent by 2050, but it will not go extinct.

The polar bear is categorised as "vulnerable" because their numbers will decline as a result of climate change, but as far as the models can see, there will be polar bears in the Arctic," he said.

At its latest assessment in 2015 the UN's International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorised the polar bear as a "vulnerable", but not "endangered" or "critically endangered".

The IUCN estimates the present total number of polar bears to be around 25,000 and some of the 19 sub-populations are growing.

In the 1960s and 1970s several populations were under heavy fire from trophy hunters and indigenous hunters in the Arctic, but after the signing of the Agreement on the Conservation of the Polar Bear in 1973 the bear hunting was deemed illegal in Russia and Norway, while USA, Canada and Greenland imposed stringent restrictions.

Meanwhile the campaigns to save the polar bear grew.

In 2009 the WWF published a video with pictures of polar bears and asked: "Are you ready to say goodbye to the polar bear?".

In 2011 WWF ran a campaign with Coca-Cola which brought in more than $2m (€1.73m) for the WWF's polar bear campaign the first year.

"Precious polar bear habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, and without intervention, so will this magnificent bear," said Carter Roberts, CEO of WWF in the USA.

In 2015 part of the message from WWF was that "polar bears are unlikely to survive as a species if there is an almost complete loss of summer sea-ice cover".

Likewise, since 2012, a Save-the-Arctic campaign by Greenpeace has been marketed globally by activists dressed as polar bears and Polar Bears International, International Polar Bear Day and others have raised further awareness.

The campaigns grew as polar bears became more numerous: "There has been a clear mismatch," Fernando Ugarte told EUobserver.

He stressed that many polar bears are already under heavy stress, they lose weight and have fewer cubs because there is still less sea ice and therefore less seals to hunt.

Many polar bear populations will shrink further, some may disappear, but not all.

The estimates of the IUCN contain considerable uncertainties; the bears at the Kara Sea in Russia, at the Chukchi Sea in Alaska and in East Greenland have never been systematically counted, but even so the IUCN does not predict extinction.

"We have heard for so many years that the polar bear is going extinct and I fear that people will stop listening.

No matter where I go people tell me that the polar bear will soon go extinct, even if it is not true," Fernando Ugarte said.

In large parts of the Arctic and for decades to come there will still be sea ice every winter where the polar bears can hunt and in northeastern Canada and north of Greenland in the so called Last Ice Area there will still be sea ice all year round.

Meanwhile, still more polar bears spend longer time on land and still more clash with humans.

This makes it more difficult for the WWF and others to handle the public's desire to protect the bears.

Special polar bear patrols, trained and financed by WWF, work to prevent clashes in Alaska, Russia and Greenland, but it is a delicate balance.

Some people in the Arctic accuse the environmentalist of protecting the bears while ignoring the needs of local communities.

"The polar bear is an important symbol for the Arctic, but we have to be careful that we don't use it in a way that alienate the people who live in the Arctic. Some communities feel that we are prioritising polar bears over them, and we can't get into that kind of situation," Leanne Clare told EUobserver.

Too far

In December 2017 a video posted by National Geographic of a painfully skinny polar bear rummaging for human garbage went viral.

According to the agency responsible for distribution, which National Geographic quoted, more than two billion people accessed the video in just two weeks.

In August 2018, however, National Geographic had to publish a retraction. The linkage between the bear's suffering and climate change could not be substantiated: "National Geographic went too far", the editors wrote.

In 2016, Christian Sonne, a Danish veterinarian and a professor at the Department of Bioscience at the University of Aarhus described in a scientific article how industrial chemicals affect the bones of polar bears, including the male penile bone.

This penile part of the story became an instant media hit and soon entertained, amongst others, viewers of the Last Week Tonight Show in the USA and its six million followers on YouTube.

WWF now works to give the story of the polar bear renewed content.

"We want people to feel empathy for the people who live in the Arctic and to understand that fighting climate change in the Arctic is part of their own survival.

The impacts of climate change on the Arctic has a huge domino effect around the world; it has a huge impact on weather systems and on ocean acidification.

Climate change is happening twice as fast in the Arctic than in the rest of the world. We need people to understand that there is an urgent need to act," Leanne Clare told EUobserver.


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