Recently, the picture editor of the Guardian, Fiona Shields, published a piece explaining “why we are going to be using fewer polar bears and more people to illustrate our coverage of the climate emergency”.
She writes: “At the Guardian we want to ensure that the images we publish accurately and appropriately convey the climate crisis that we face. Following discussions among editors about how we could change the language we use in our coverage of environmental issues, our attention then turned to images. We have been working across the organisation to better understand how we aim to visually communicate the impact the climate emergency is having across the world.”
Polar bears – the best communicators?
Polar bears have long been the icon of Arctic conservation. Cute, cuddly (-looking), clean, white – and as the planet warms and the ice melts, looking increasingly skinny, hungry and desperate. But like every icon or image, there is a danger the effect wears off, people get tired of them, the image becomes a cliché. Or does it just not have the obvious relevance to the majority of people in a “me”-centred age?
Ultimately it comes down to the question: what pictures will make people sit up and take notice and feel they have to do something about it – personally, in their daily lifestyle and their participation in politics. I follow with interest discussions in the Guardian on how best to cover climate change.
The choice of “emergency” is part of the paper’s language effort. How to get people’s attention for the environment and climate change is not new territory. It’s something that has concerned journalists working on these issues for several decades now. I have interviewed and discussed with colleagues at the international broadcaster where I worked for more than 20 years, with climate psychologists, with colleagues from other media, scientists and students. There have been panels, programmes, articles, blog posts on the Ice Blog and … Eye on the Arctic…
I’ll be taking it up again shortly – but not in this post.
Waiting for ice
This time, there can be no doubt that polar bear pictures are the right ones. (And I’m spoilt for choice thanks to Polar Bears International!)
It’s polar bear season in Churchill, the “polar bear capital” of the world. As autumn slowly spreads its chilly fingers across the northern hemisphere, our white furry creatures are gathering, awaiting the forming of the sea ice, their hunting territory, their basis for survival. But this is not an ordinary year – and these are not ordinary times. Summer temperatures in the Arctic region have broken records, sparking unprecedented wildfires. Siberia and Alaska, traditionally synonomous for most of us with brrrrrrrr, have been scorching hot at times.
I recently had the chance to talk to Geoff York, one of the world’s best-known polar bear experts.
He is Senior Director of Conservation with Polar Bears International, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of polar bears and their Arctic home. He told me he had never see anything like this summer’s developments.
Geoff York has almost 30 years of field experience in the Arctic, most recently as the Arctic Species and Polar Bear Lead for WWF’s Global Arctic Program. Geoff has worked on field projects in Canada, Norway, Russia, and Alaska. Currently, as well as his PBI work, he is a member of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Team,. He’s also a past chair and active member of the Polar Bear Range States Conflict Working Group, and sits on the advisory board for the International Polar Bear Conservation Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. So, in short, there’s not much he doesn’t know about polar bears and the problems of conserving them across a wide international space and against the background of a warming climate.
He’s never seen anything like it
“What we’ve seen this year in the Chukchi and Beaufort sea areas – the areas I’m most familiar with – is unlike anything I’ve seen in the past almost 30 years. We’ve had abrupt and rapid sea ice loss, across the region and we’ve had some unusual marine mammal die-offs that may well be associated with that sea ice loss,” he told me, in an interview which was partially broadcast on www.dw.com/environment.
Geoff told me there were grey whales, seals and a variety of sea and shore birds washing up on shore around Alaska and Chukotka, Russia. It is not entirely clear what the trigger was. But in most cases, Geoff says the experts found the animals appeared to have starved to death.
As far as the bears are concerned, conditions varied in different parts of the Arctic. The worst sea-ice loss was in the Laptov Sea north of Russia, and the Beaufort Sea that touches Alaska, Geoff says. So polar bears were affected to different extents in different regions, says the polar bear expert, with 19 sub-populations spread out across the Arctic.
“So we have warming, we’re getting sea ice loss, which for the polar bears is habitat loss. That disrupts their feeding, at key points for gaining weight, and that means the window they have to put on critical fat for surviving the winter is shrinking and shrinking. That means we have bears in poor condition going into the winter. For females, that can be critical and ultimately leads to a declining population.”
I am keeping an eye on the Polar Bears International website and especially the webcam, to find out how things progress and how the “Arctic icons” will fare this autumn and winter.
Why polar bears concern us all
Now I am a self-professed fan of polar bears and lover of wild animals in general. But not everyone is keen on our furry fellow residents on this fragile little world. Which is one reason why a lot of people react more to pictures of humans in distress than animals. But even for those who aren’t moved by the plight of starving polar bears – the changes to the Arctic ecosystem are not only affecting them – they’re of existential significance to all of us on our planet.
There’s a kind of vicious circle. Warming is causing the sea ice to melt. The disappearance of sea ice, a white background that reflects heat back into space, leaves open water, which absorbs the heat instead of deflecting it. So the world gets hotter still.
Geoff York explains the key role of the Arctic sea ice like this:
“An ice-free Arctic could accelerate the warming we’re anticipating around the world, and a recent study pegged that at about 25 years. So if all of the sea ice in the Arctic were to melt – and we’re heading in that direction – we could basically move up the models that are showing what’s happening with the warming by about 25 years, it would be equivalent to adding about one trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, that would be devastating.”
The last century with polar bears?
– And not just for the polar bears. But I wanted to know how Geoff York rates the long-term survival chances for polar bears as a species. Are they on the way out?
“That depends almost entirely on what we do. It depends on our choices, and our actions, in terms of how we deal with greenhouse gas emissions, and how quickly we can transition ourselves to renewable energies. We know from the research that’s been done that sea ice is very reactive to changes in temperature, so if we can stabilize the temperature, we can stabilize the sea ice. We might not be able to bring back the ice we’ve lost that quickly, but if we can stop the loss, we can keep polar bears around for future generations.”
Sadly, that is rather a big “if”. The latest report by the IPCC on how climate change is affecting the ocean and cryosphere indicates that the window for action is getting smaller all the time. And we need to do much more, much faster to have any chances of keeping to the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
More than one kind of “tipping point”
Pamela Pearson is Founder and Director of the International Climate an Cryosphere Initiative (ICCI). I asked her recently in an interview whether she thought the past extremely hot summer in the Arctic could be a kind of “tipping point”. Her reply:
“I would not want to say that it’s a physical tipping point or a threshold but what it might be is a real wake up call to policymakers that this is not something in the future it’s something that’s happening right now and it’s something that we need to act on right now. Before we do reach those thresholds. So I hope it’s a threshold in public opinion and in policymaker action.”
20 years ago, she says, people regarded the cryosphere, our icy regions as “the canary in the coal mine”, as far as climate change was concerned.
“But once global heating reaches a certain point, the cryosphere shifts – and it’s not just a signal of global heating, it’s actually driving it (…) . And so in a sense the battle to preserve the cryosphere is the battle to preserve the Earth as we know it today. “
We’re all in this together
Coming back to that discussion in the Guardian. Fiona Shields writes:
“Often, when signalling environmental stories to our readers, selecting an image of a polar bear on melting ice has been the obvious – though not necessarily appropriate – choice. These images tell a certain story about the climate crisis but can seem remote and abstract – a problem that is not a human one, nor one that is particularly urgent”.
Given the global role played by the Arctic and its ice in regulating the global climate – when pictures of polar bears no longer “do the trick” – we communicators still have a lot of work ahead explaining the interconnectedness of our fragile and rapidly heating planet.