FOOTAGE of a poorly polar bear went viral in December. Emaciated, it stumbled across a green Arctic landscape without a speck of snow or ice in sight (see picture below). Media outlets seized on the video as an example of how climate change is killing its poster child. But behind the headlines is an awkward question: have climate change activists chosen the wrong mascot?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has long considered polar bears (Ursus maritimus) “vulnerable to extinction”. In May 2008, the US raised its own listing to threatened. The decision made international headlines and helped the polar bear achieve its iconic status in climate change campaigns.
Both listings rested on forecasts that Arctic sea ice would rapidly melt during the first half of the 21st century as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Polar bears are expected to suffer the consequences. They spend most of the year cruising the fringes of sea ice, hunting ringed seals. The two play a game of Arctic cat and mouse: the seals pierce breathing holes in thin ice; the bears hang around the holes looking for lunch. Even though polar bears can survive on dry land for part of the year, they ultimately depend on the ice to hunt.
The rationale for concern is sound. In the past decade, Arctic temperatures have risen faster than models predicted and the ice has vanished faster …