In December 2017, viral images of a starving polar bear in Canada captured the world’s attention. Now National Geographic is saying it went “too far” in saying that the images show “what climate change is like.”
The video was captured by photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. After Nicklen posted the video on Instagram with the caption, “This is what starvation looks like,” Nat Geo picked it up and added its own captions.
Here’s the 1.5-minute video that National Geographic originally published:
The video quickly became the most viewed video on the National Geographic website ever. The photographers estimate that roughly 2.5 billion people saw the images.
“[B]ut there was a problem: We had lost control of the narrative,” writes Mittermeier in a new Nat Geo story for the August 2018 issue. “The first line of the National Geographic video said, ‘This is what climate change looks like’—with ‘climate change’ highlighted in the brand’s distinctive yellow.
“In retrospect, National Geographic went too far with the caption.”
National Geographic agrees with Mittermeier’s assessment. Here’s a note by the editor:
National Geographic went too far in drawing a definitive connection between climate change and a particular starving polar bear in the opening caption of our video about the animal. We said, “This is what climate change looks like.” While science has established that there is a strong connection between melting sea ice and polar bears dying off, there is no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death.
Nat Geo has published an updated version of the video that now reads: “This is what a starving polar bear looks like.”
“Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change,” Mittermeier writes. “[…] With this image, we thought we had found a way to help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like. We were, perhaps, naive.
“The picture went viral—and people took it literally.”