How the narrative on polar bears has become a problem for Arctic environmental groups

“When the symbol gets bigger than the region itself and people don’t realize 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.”

By Martin Breum - October 21, 2018
A polar bear jumps between ice floes near Spitsbergen Island in Svalbard, Norway. (Arturo de Frias Marques / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Our fear that the polar bear is going extinct is perhaps the world’s most powerful symbol of climate change in the Arctic and its global ramifications.

Our tremendous attention to the polar bear’s apparently imminent and irrevocable disappearance has continued to grow and grow for years — not the least due to the effective campaigns of global environmental organizations. However, for at least one of these large groups, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the story about the upcoming extinction of the polar bear has become somewhat of a dilemma.

According to the most authoritative scientific assessments, the polar bear does not face imminent extinction, and the widespread belief that it does now stands in the way of more nuanced communication about the dramatic effects of climate change in the Arctic. Leanne Clare, senior manager of communications of the WWF’s Arctic Program explained this to me in Finland last week:

“When the symbol gets bigger than the region itself and people don’t realize 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,” she told me.

“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 — some would say resilient — 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 utilize 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.”

No threat of extinction

The people of the WWF are not the only ones to have seen the problem. At the Arctic Circle conference where some 2,500 diplomats, scientists, and others have gathered in Reykjavik, Iceland, this weekend, the polar bear dilemma was part of the discussion about responsible journalism under a tell-tale heading: From Polar Bears to People: Getting the story of the Arctic Climate Change right – organized by the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s Arctic Initiative. (Disclosure: Arctic Today was also a panel organizer.)

The change in WWF’s global communication about the bears was presented in the middle of October just north of the Polar Circle in Rovaniemi, home of some 60.000 people and the main city in Finland’s Arctic north. Some 400 biologists, geographers and other scientists, diplomats and environmentalists attended a congress of CAFF, Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, one of the scientific working groups of the Arctic Council, focused on the conservation of biodiversity in the Arctic.

In this community of scientists, it’s been known for some time that the international polar bear campaigns and their implicit story of the threat that the bear will go extinct are problematic. The scientific guardians of the 19 populations of polar bear in the Arctic are connected through the Polar Bear Specialist Group under the UN’s International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, and they never said that the polar bear will go extinct. At the latest assessment in 2015 the IUCN chose to keep the polar bear categorized as a “vulnerable,” but not “endangered” and certainly not “critically endangered,” which is what you are if you are on the brink of extinction.

One of the members of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, Fernando Ugarte, head of department at Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk, was also in Rovaniemi:

“The polar bear is not going extinct,” he told me.

Ugarte said his analysis suggests that the decline of sea ice will lead to a decline in the total population of polar bears of about 30 percent by 2050 — but not extinction.

“The polar bear is categorized 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.

Some of the 19 polar bear populations, which total about 25,000 animals, are actually growing. In the 1960s and 1970s several populations were under heavy fire from trophy hunters and local Indigenous hunters in the Arctic, but after the signing of the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973, the bear was given total protection in Russia and Norway, while Canada, the U.S. and Greenland imposed stringent restrictions on polar bear hunting. The rules in Greenland were further tightened, most recently in 2006.

In the same period the campaigns to save the polar bear gained momentum. In 2009 the WWF published a video on the internet where sad pictures of polar bears were coupled with the question: “Are you ready to say goodbye to the polar bear?” In 2011 WWF signed a deal with Coca-Cola that led to a joint campaign which brought in more than $2 million for the WWF’s polar bear campaign in the first year alone. “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 U.S. Prior to one of the UN’s main climate meets in Copenhagen 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, the Save-the-Arctic campaign of Greenpeace has been marketed globally since 2012 by scores of activists dressed as polar bears, and an almost-real Greenpeace polar bear also wandering about outside the CAFF-congress in Rovaniemi. Campaigns by Polar Bears International, International Polar Bear Day and others have also helped keep the implicit story of the polar bear’s possible disappearance strong. The campaigns grew even as polar bear populations did too.

“There has been a clear mismatch,” Ugarte told me.

He stressed that many polar bears are already under heavy stress, they lose weight, the have fewer cubs because there is still less ice and therefore less seals to hunt. He emphasized that the problems will get bigger. Many polar bear populations will shrink, and 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 counted systematically, but even when the uncertainties are brought into the equation, the IUCN does not predict extinction.

The mismatch has caused a bit of frustration among scientists: “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,” Ugarte said.

In the so-called “Last Ice Area” in northeastern Canada and north of Greenland, there will still be some year-round sea ice year for decades to come where the polar bears will be able to hunt.

Clashes with humans

Still more polar bears spend longer time on land than they used to, and still more clash with humans. This makes the global public desire to protect the bears still more difficult to handle for organizations like WWF and its staff in about 100 offices around the world. Children, teenagers and adults all over the world fear that the last polar bear will soon die, and they react eagerly to all news about new threats to the bear.

For some years now, special polar bear patrols, trained and financed by WWF, have worked to prevent clashes between bears and humans in a small number of Arctic societies in Alaska, Russia and North Eastern Greenland, but it is a delicate balancing act. Some people in the Arctic still accuse the big environmentalist groups of protecting plants and animals while they ignore the needs of Indigenous communities for hunting, food and protection against the bears. If this conflict grows it could amount to serious problems for the many concrete Arctic environmental projects of the WWF and for WWF’s communication with the rest of the world. As WWF’s Clare explained to me in Finland: “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. We have a situation, where some communities feel that we are prioritizing polar bears over them, and we can’t get into that kind of situation.”

All polar bears die

The intense international focus on the polar bear and the desire by big media and organizations to utilize this power has manifested itself in still more thought-provoking ways.

In December 2017 National Geographic posted a now famous video on the internet with footage produced by photographer, biologist and environmentalist Paul Nicklen. The video showed an obviously emaciated, painfully skinny polar bear only barely able to drag itself forward while looking for garbage to eat. The video went viral. The agency responsible for National Geographic’s distribution said more than two billion people accessed the video in just the two first weeks.

“This is what climate change looks like,” wrote National Geographic, but after criticism they had to publish a retraction. The link between the suffering of this particular polar bear and climate change could not be substantiated:

”National Geographic went too far”, the magazine wrote in August 2018.

For the specialists it seemed most likely that the polar bear in the video was simply edging towards its natural death. “All polar bears have to die at one point and most of them die of old age of when they get too sick to collect sufficient food,” says Fernando Ugarte.

In another incident, Christian Sonne, a Danish veterinarian and a professor at the Department of Bioscience at the University of Aarhus, encounter the extraordinary appeal of the polar bear in 2016. In a scientific article for Environmental Research, a science journal, he described how industrially produced chemicals affect the bones of the polar bear, including the male penile bone. This new aspect of the polar bear’s sufferings became an instant hit and appeared as blast on the Last Week Tonight Show.


WWF now works to give the story of the polar bear differently.

WWF’s Arctic Program, with offices in six Arctic nations, including Greenland, plus offices in Great Britain and the Netherlands, had more than 700,000 visitors on its website in 2017 alone. Sixty-three percent of these guests, many of them  children and students, were looking for data on the polar bear and most of them did not care for any other inputs. The story of the polar bear has created a lot of traffic, but this traffic no longer has the desired effect:

“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. It is not as if we have 12 more years. Two degrees is already happening in the Arctic and that is what we really have to get people to understand.”

New stories about the Arctic are now being developed alongside a new global communications strategy for WWF. In collaboration with an international branding agency, WWF has conducted a survey of 10,000 respondents in 10 countries in Africa, Asia and South America to gauge people’s perception of biodiversity and climate change. Michael Alexander, WWF’s Planning Manager, with years of experience in the advertising industry, told me that the results will only be published in 2020, as new goals for biodiversity will be set by through the UN. However, it is quite clear already today that the polar bear will remain on WWF’s repertoire, even if the story will have a different set of nuances:

“It is not only about saving the animal, but the whole habitat behind that animal and the communities that rely on them. There will always be a place for lovely, fluffy animals that appeal to a lot of people,” he told me.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that polar bear hunting is banned in the U.S. It further misstated the date by which models predict a 30 percent decline in global polar bear populations. That’s expected in 2050, not 50 years from the present. This article has been updated to correct these errors. Additionally, this piece was updated to clarify a description of the Last Ice Area in Northern Canada and Greenland.