Remember the video of an emaciated polar bear that went viral last year? Now, the photographer who captured the shocking images is questioning the climate change narrative tied to the footage.
What are the details?
Writing in an article for the August edition of the National Geographic magazine, photographer Cristina Mittermeier lamented that the image was received by the general public in a way she and her team never intended.
"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," Mittermeier wrote.
The footage was captured at Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. Mittermeier explained that she snapped photographs while her colleague, Paul Nicklen, videoed the heartbreaking situation. Nicklen later posted his footage to Instagram, explaining it demonstrated what starvation looked like in nature.
However, he never blamed climate change, Mittermeier said.
Then National Geographic published the video, spiraling the narrative out-of-control. The video quickly became the most-watched ever on National Geographic's website. An estimated 2.5 billion people saw the images after news organizations around the world published stories about it.
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. Other news outlets ran dramatic headlines like this one from the Washington Post: “‘We stood there crying’: Emaciated polar bear seen in ‘gut-wrenching’ video and photos.”
We had sent a “gut-wrenching” image out into the world. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that people didn’t pick up on the nuances we tried to send with it.
Yet we were shocked by the response. Many people expressed gratitude that we’d shined a light on climate change, but others angrily asked why we had not fed the bear or covered him with blankets or taken him to a vet—none of which would have saved him. Those responses revealed how disconnected people are from wildlife, ecology, and even geography.
In the end, Mittermeier admitted she "can’t say that this bear was starving because of climate change." Indeed, after the images went viral, some experts said the bear's condition was attributed to age, illness, or even injury — not climate change.
To some, the group became "another example of environmentalist exaggeration," Mittermeier said.
"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," she wrote.
What did National Geographic say?
In an editor's note in the article, the publication wrote:
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 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.
The viral video was also edited with updated subtitles.