The viral photo of a starving polar bear might be dying of cancer, not climate change.

Is That Starving Polar Bear Dying From Climate Change? Probably Not.

Is That Starving Polar Bear Dying From Climate Change? Probably Not.

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The state of the universe.
Dec. 11 2017 7:15 PM

Is That Starving Polar Bear Dying From Climate Change? Probably Not.

Climate change is certainly killing polar bears, but this photo may just depict disease. It can still help us better understand what’s a stake.

171211_SCI_SkinnyPolarBear
While it can be hard to stomach, never mind witness, animals starve to death all the time for a million different reasons.

National Geographic

When National Geographic published a video of a disturbingly thin polar bear struggling to walk across snow-free pastures on Thursday, it seemed like an image visceral enough to finally shake us out of our complacency to start doing something about climate change. “We stood there crying—filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” the magazines own staffers said of the images they collected. Thousands of viewers joined in, expressing their dismay at the majestic bear’s disturbing demise and regret over the current state of carbon emissions.

Polar bears have been the poster child of climate change for years—as we all know, the shrinking amount of ice in the Arctic makes it increasingly hard for them to hunt. This photo seems to be the epitome of this problem. But “seems” is the operative word here: In the past few days, as the image has drawn more attention, Arctic scientists have spoken up to explain why they’re not convinced the bear is dying of climate change after all.

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Jeff W. Higdon is a wildlife biologist who has been working in the Canadian Arctic for more than a decade. When he first saw the images, he says he tried to ignore them—“manipulative” and “emotional” images like this circulate on the web all the time. But after being tagged by a local student-researcher seeking his comment, he decided to take his concerns to Twitter. “I thought the message was too simplified, basically,” Higdon told me. “And a little too over the top in the sense that, ‘This is what climate change looks like.’ ”

What’s a more accurate read? For one thing, he says, during summertime, part of the Arctic is often ice-free. That’s due to seasonal changes, not climatic shifts. And while it can be hard to stomach never mind witness, animals starve to death all the time, for a million different reasons. “We may start to see more [climate-caused starvation] over time, but at this point, there’s no evidence I’m aware of that we’re seeing that,” Higdon adds.

Higdon’s best guess is that the bear was dying of bone cancer or some other disease. His hypothesis remains unverified since that would require further evidence to be substantiated—evidence that could have been collected. “My biggest issue with this is that we’ll never know what happened with that bear,” Higdon says. Instead of leaving after the photo session, he said he wished National Geographic had asked the local conservation officials to euthanize the animal (which he said would have been more humane at that point) and then perform a necropsy to determine scientifically the true cause of death—and to further the scientific understanding of the bear populations in that region.

Instead, we don’t know exactly what the cause of death was, which made it all too easy for viewers to turn one diseased polar bear into a symbol of climate change’s destruction. Higdon says we should be skeptical of anyone who thinks the complex phenomenon of climate change caused the misfortune of this one individual animal. That’s certainly true from a purely scientific standpoint—climate change increases the likelihood of certain events, but it is still extremely tricky to attribute a single event, particularly one that often happens naturally, back to climate change.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t tempting to use this as an example of what could happen if we don’t curb our emissions. Reductive storytelling like this can have a place in making complicated phenomena more relatable for humans. We’re built to crave narrative after all. The important thing is that we construct these narratives out of the truth—that we say “climate change will make more bears die like this one,” rather than “climate change killed this bear.” The side benefit of this is that it’s also correct, and doesn’t feed ammunition to climate change deniers who will seize on any over-exaggerated claim to bolster their case. (It’s not like deniers are swayed by the truth, either, though: Higdon also said that his comments have already been used out of context by people desperate to see his criticism of the photo as “proof” polar bears aren’t endangered or climate change isn’t happening at all. Go figure.)

In the end, the best battle to wage is the one for people’s attention. “What I would like to see is people learning more about these issues. It infuriates me, it’s a five-minute activism kind of thing for people,” Higdon says. “The photo gets thrown around and two days later it’s forgotten about and no one’s behavior has changed.”

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Eleanor Cummins was an intern at Slate. Her reporting interests run the gamut of science. Follow her on Twitter.