Polar Bear Photos Are Losing Their Power as Climate Change Visuals

a family of polar bears on ice

Haunting photos of hunger-stricken polar bears atop small melted ice caps are no longer the definitive climate change imagery. Instead, a report from the BBC suggests that more powerful visuals of climate change hit closer to home.

Today, BBC reports, the images of flooding, heatwaves, and natural disasters, all of which impact people directly, are seen as the leading visuals of the climate crisis. This is because they are seen as more relatable. An image of a starved polar bear, much like the one taken by Cristina Mittermeier that gained traction in 2017, as BBC highlights, can make climate change feel too distant.

Mittermeier’s image features a polar bear among green earth, rather than surrounded by ice. The bear was visibly starved, presenting a stark and devastating view of one aspect of climate change. But the image attracted controversy, and some criticized the assumption that the bear’s appearance was due to climate change rather than illness or other factors.

Further, it can be difficult for some people to connect with climate change, the BBC notes, because it can make the issue feel relegated to far-flung areas of the world rather than their own backyards.

“You’re better off showing a more human interaction with climate change, something that people can relate to,” Alastair Johnstone, the climate visuals advisor at Climate Outreach, tells BBC.

This sentiment was echoed in a recent study conducted by Climate Visuals, a project that aims to create a diverse visual language for climate change. The survey “found that polar bear photos are iconic, but not sufficiently compelling.” Climate Visuals reportedly does not include any images of polar bears in its database.

Moreover, advocates argue that climate change is in fact an issue that is close to home. Wildfires have destroyed homes in the U.S., Canada, and Australia in the last few years. Flooding and severe storms have destroyed communities around the world. These are still just a slice of the effects of climate change, but the growing thought process is that these are preferable.

“It is impossible to rely on a single symbol to represent a global problem with local effects,” Kate Manzo, a lecturer in climate change communication at Newcastle University in the UK, explains to the BBC.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.