How polar bears became a symbol for climate change

Model Of Knut The Polar Bear Goes On Display At Natural History Museum In Berlin
© Adam Berry/Getty Images

Over at The Atlantic, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley interviewed Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America., on how the polar bear became a symbol for climate change, but ultimately lost its power:

Manaugh: Preservation of an entire ecosystem, if you were to follow the letter of the law, would require an absolutely astonishing level of commitment. Saving the polar bear, in that sense, means that we'd have to restore the atmosphere to a certain level of carbon dioxide, and reverse Arctic melting, which might mean reforesting the Amazon or cutting our greenhouse gas emissions to virtually nothing, overnight. It's inspiringly ambitious.

Mooallem: As I try to explain in the book, that's basically why the polar bear became so famous, for lack of a better word. It became an icon of climate change, because in a shrewd, "gotcha" kind of way, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmentalists chose the polar bear as their tool to try to use the Endangered Species Act to put pressure on the Bush administration to deal with climate change as a much larger problem.

Even though the environmental groups themselves admitted it was very unlikely that this would work, they were trying to make the case that the polar bear is endangered, that the thing that is endangering it is climate change, and that the government is legally compelled by the Endangered Species Act to deal with this threat to an Endangered Species. So, if you accept that the polar bear is endangered, then you have to accept the larger responsibility of dealing with climate change.

It's a completely back-door way to try to force the government to act on climate change, but the result was that the polar bear ended up with this superstar status and popular recognition among the general public, which I found amazing.

The Center for Biological Diversity realized that they needed a public relations strategy as well as a legal strategy, and, by picking the polar bear, they knew that they could put the Bush administration on the spot. The Bush administration couldn't just put the polar bear in this infinite waiting room, because people would be upset.

Kids started writing letters to the Secretary of the Interior begging him to save the polar bear. They were sending in their own hand-drawn pictures of bears, drowning.

In some ways, the premise of the book is that our emotions and imaginations about these animals dictates their ability to survive in the real world, and this story was a particularly fascinating--not to mention peculiar--example in which all this sentimental gushing over polar bears, which, on the face of it, seems mawkish and kind of silly, was the lynchpin in a legal proceeding. In that case, our emotions about this animal really did matter.

Of course, there's a whole other part of the story where the administration got around it anyway. But, for a while, it mattered.

Mooallem goes on to explain how polar bears lost their power as a symbol:

Twilley: When you invest an animal with that much symbolic power, the stakes get absurdly high.

Mooallem: Exactly--look at the polar bear. Of course, the polar bear has lost a lot of its cachet. I don't know whether you saw the YouTube video that Obama put out to accompany his big climate speech in June, but I was surprised: there wasn't a single polar bear image in it. It was all floods and storms and dried-up corn. Four years ago, there would have definitely been polar bears in that video.

Today, though, the polar bear is just not as potent a symbol. It's become too political. It doesn't really resonate with environmentalists anymore and it ticks off everyone else. What's amazing is that it's just a freaking bear, yet it's become as divisive a figure as Rush Limbaugh.

via Andrew Sullivan

Just this week, when The Guardian showed this photo of a dead polar bear that starved, alongside information from scientists that believe this was due to the melting sea ice, there are commenters countering that other polar bear groups are doing very well, so this polar bear must be stupid or unlucky to have starved. Then other commenters feel the urge to prove that polar bears really are dying and it devolves into an argument. And all of this distracts from the bigger issue which is that the sea ice really is melting because the atmosphere is warmer.

It reminds me of CFL light bulbs. Somehow they became such the symbol of "green living" or sustainable thinking or even left-leaning politics, so opponents of those things attacked the bulbs, defended incandescents and distracted from the bigger issue of the need to put less carbon into the atmosphere.

When the fight becomes about the symbol and not the issue that symbol represents, it's hard to have a real debate.

IMAGE: BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 15: Photographers take pictures of Knut the polar bear, featuring his original fur, on display in the Natural History Museum (Naturkundemuseum) on February 15, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Though Knut, the world-famous polar bear from the city's zoo abandoned by his mother and ultimately immortalized as a cartoon film character, stuffed toys, and more temporarily as a gummy bear, died two years ago, he will live on additionally as a partially-taxidermied specimen in the museum. Until March 15, the dermoplastic model of the ursine celebrity will be on display before it joins the museum's archive, though visitors can see it once again as part of a permanent exhibition that begins in 2014.

How polar bears became a symbol for climate change
Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley interviewed Jon Mooallem on how the polar bear became a symbol for climate change, but ultimately lost its power:

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