The Polar Bear as a Climate Icon | Polarjournal
Photo: Michael Wenger

Polar bears have long served as a symbol of climate change for obvious reasons. Not only is the polar bear a beautiful, charismatic animal, but the link between polar bears and melting sea ice is an easy and poignant concept to grasp.

As a conservation organization dedicated to polar bears, addressing the overarching threat of climate change is central to our work. And one of the most powerful ways that we can connect with people and inspire action is through storytelling and images that show the changes taking place as the Arctic warms. After all, our followers care about polar bears and care about the Arctic; they want to stay informed.

Recently the BBC published an article titled, Why polar bears are no longer the poster image of climate change. Almost immediately, we began hearing from supporters who expressed concern that polar bears would be forgotten as media attention shifted from melting sea ice to wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and other impacts of our warming world.

Photo: Michael Wenger

As Polar Bears International’s senior director of communications, I realize it may come as a surprise that our team considers it a positive shift that media coverage on climate change has expanded beyond polar bears. After all, climate change is not a remote problem that only threatens polar bears and their Arctic home. Instead, it’s a global issue with impacts on people and ecosystems around the globe.

That’s why, in our outreach, we always put the plight of the polar bear within the larger context of our own backyards. Time and again, we state that what takes place in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The polar bears’ future is our future. Our fates intertwine. And so, we celebrate the fact that human-focused climate coverage – with photographs of heatwaves, droughts, and floods – is increasingly in the news.

But this doesn’t mean that polar bears will fade from public view. There will always be a place for polar bears in climate communications, just as there will always be a place to highlight the risks of a warming world to coral reefs, penguins, and other ecosystems and species that people care about.

Photo: Heiner Kubny

In fact, because people care about polar bears, and because our members and sponsors make our work possible, we have been able to study and monitor the bears closely for decades now, producing quantitative evidence on how climate change affects even a top predator, putting its very future at risk. A recent, groundbreaking paper by our chief scientist emeritus, Dr. Steven Amstrup, shows that this massive body of work can serve as a blueprint for developing policies to protect bears and other species threatened by climate change, including humans. Polar bears have been and continue to be trailblazing icons when it comes to connecting the dots in a warming world.

Similarly, the fact that polar bears are now showing up in Arctic communities that seldom if ever saw them before shortens the mental leap from “polar bears in the remote Arctic” to our own backyards, underscoring the point that climate change affects everyone and can lead to unexpected new issues for animals and humans alike.

Photo: Julia Hager

The polar bear emerged as the first icon of climate change and the impacts of a warming world, ringing alarm bells and inspiring people to care. And it remains a powerful symbol of what we stand to lose if we fail to curb carbon emissions.

Sustaining a future for polar bears is what guides us at Polar Bears International – and we know that, by ensuring the polar bears’ future, we’ll help preserve the climate that has allowed humans to flourish.

We’re grateful to this community for sharing our love of polar bears and the Arctic ecosystem and for making this important work possible.

Barbara Nielsen, Polar Bears International

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