13th Nov 2018


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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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

"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.


'Denial' - is meat the new climate change?

The European Parliament's agriculture committee meets on Tuesday, with speculation that the EPP will vote against a report on the EU plant protein plan if it mentions switching away from animals to plant-based diets.


Why Brazil's election matters to Brussels

Jair Bolsonaro could render the EU's climate action meaningless, if the newly elected leader of Latin America's biggest country follows through with plans to allow massive deforestation.

News in Brief

  1. Draft Brexit deal on London cabinet agenda on Wednesday
  2. EU proposes no visa for UK citizens after Brexit
  3. EU parliament 'deeply concerned' on Romania judiciary
  4. Macedonia's ex-PM flees to Hungary, seeks asylum
  5. Cyprus opens first new border crossings in eight years
  6. Putin's Austrian dance partner cancels Moscow visit
  7. Political deadlock over Sweden Democrat influence
  8. Court: Catalan referendum organisers must repay costs


Crunch time to end overfishing in the EU

What happens when a difficult deadline hits? This is precisely what is being played out in EU fisheries as we approach the landmark legal commitment under the Common Fisheries Policy to end overfishing by 2020.


No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected

Following the 2030 renewable target of 32 percent, chair of the European Parliament's environment committee Adina Valean argues in order to reach our climate and energy goals, we need both public and private investment over the next decade and beyond.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Latest News

  1. Merkel calls for 'real, true' EU army
  2. Italy defiant on budget on eve of EU deadline
  3. EU action on Hungary and Poland drowns in procedure
  4. EU unable to fully trace €1bn spent on refugees in Turkey
  5. Romanian leaders trade jibes over upcoming EU presidency
  6. EU warns Romania not to abuse GDPR against press
  7. EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name
  8. Fear of nationalist surge marks European memorials

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  3. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  5. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  9. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  10. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  3. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  6. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  8. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  9. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  10. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  11. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us