by Dr. Eowyn
Last December, National Geographic magazine published a heart-rending video of an emaciated polar bear barely able to walk.
National Geographic captioned the video “THIS IS WHAT CLIMATE CHANGE LOOKS LIKE” — attributing the starving polar bear to climate change. On the video’s YouTube page is this text:
This is what climate change looks like. This starving polar bear was spotted by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen on Somerset Island….
As temperatures rise, and sea ice melts, polar bears lose access to the main staple of their diet—seals. Starving, and running out of energy, they are forced to wander into human settlements for any source of food. Feeding polar bears is illegal. Without finding another source of food, this bear likely only had a few more hours to live.
Now, eight months later, one of the two National Geographic photographers who took that video admits that they didn’t really know the polar bear was starving because of climate change.
Cristina G. Mittermeier writes in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic:
The connection between an individual animal’s death and climate change is rarely clear—even when an animal is as emaciated as this polar bear.
Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change. Documenting its effects on wildlife hasn’t been easy. 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….
When Paul posted the video on Instagram, he wrote, “This is what starvation looks like.” He pointed out that scientists suspect polar bears will be driven to extinction in the next century. He wondered whether the global population of 25,000 polar bears would die the way this bear was dying. He urged people to do everything they could to reduce their carbon footprint and prevent this from happening. But he did not say that this particular bear was killed by climate change.
National Geographic picked up the video and added subtitles. It became the most viewed video on National Geographic’s website—ever. News organizations around the world ran stories about it; social media exploded with opinions about it. We estimate that an astonishing 2.5 billion people were reached by our footage. The mission was a success, but there was a problem: We had lost control of the narrative. 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….
Perhaps we made a mistake in not telling the full story—that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future and that we didn’t know what had happened to this particular polar bear.
I can’t say that this bear was starving because of climate change….
National Geographic‘s editor appended this note at the beginning of photographer Mittermeier’s mea culpa:
Editor’s Note: 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 December 2017 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.
Below is an updated version of the starving polar bear video:
If human-made “climate change” is real, why would its proponents have to lie and deceive?
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