Why Polar Bears Suck

Put away your polar bear costumes and your "I Heart Glaciers" t-shirts. If your goal is to persuasively communicate the risks of climate change to the public, then you're barking up the wrong affective (emotionally resonant) imagery.

Research by Leiserowitz has shown that associations to melting glaciers and ice are the most salient images of global warming among the American public (and it’s not much of a stretch to believe the Canadian experience is similar). The result of this association, and similarly distant image associations, is that Americans “...perceive climate change as a moderate risk, but think the impacts will mostly affect people and places that are geographically distant (emphasis mine)...most Americans lack vivid, concrete, and personally relevant affective images of climate change.” (Leiserowitz, 2007, p. 50)

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Based on these findings, it would seem that scientists, environmentalists and climate change advocates are effectively shooting themselves in the foot every time they use images of melting ice and polar regions to persuade audiences about the risks of climate change. It’s a bad habit that many are unaware of: “If I was doing a Canadian presentation there'd be a whole lot more on permafrost melting and polar bears than maybe somewhere else, because that's something that Canadians identify with” (Recent personal interview with a Canadian presenter of An Inconvenient Truth). Yes, Canadian audiences might vaguely identify with melting ice and polar bears, but are they personally relevant? Four fifths of the Canadian population lives within 150 kilometers of the US border - thousands of kilometers away from the Arctic.

An Arctic Conspiracy

Perversely, efforts that build notions of Canadian identity around the Arctic may have the effect of focusing Canadian attention on climate impacts in an area that is part of our national identity, but that is geographically too faraway to be personally relevant. This might explain a seeming contradiction between the Canadian Conservative government’s focus on building-up the Arctic through visits and photo-ops as part of the Canadian identity, while simultaneously undermining efforts to combat climate change both in terms of international agreements on greenhouse gas reductions, as well as supporting expansion of carbon-intensive projects at home, like the oil sands - things that will have long-term negative impacts on the people and animals that actually live in the Arctic.

While they're awfully cute, when it comes to communicating climate change persuasively, polar bears (and their melting Arctic backdrop) suck.