Opinionista Ivo Vegter 20 December 2017

Polar Bears: How a video can tell a lie

Images have the power to tug at our heartstrings, and make us abdicate the faculty of reason entirely. National Geographic recently touted a video of a starving polar bear as evidence that global warming was killing them off. Yet polar bears are thriving, and one anecdote of a dying polar bear doesn’t change that.

Visual images are emotive, and can be made to say almost anything. Photographers know this, and skilled photographers use this to their advantage. However, images constitute only anecdotal evidence. They can say, “This happened”. They cannot say, “This happens all the time”. For the logicians among you, an image can say, “There exists an x for which y is true”. It cannot say, “For all x, y is true”.

One cannot generalise from anecdotal evidence, and one cannot generalise from a photograph. But photographers know that people do generalise. They see what they want to see, what they expect to see, or what they are told they’re seeing. They look for, and often are spoon-fed, a “meaning” behind the image. That makes imagery uniquely useful to manipulate people, to evoke emotions that override reason and provoke action.

Consider this story in The Guardian, about the UK’s falling carbon emissions. It contains a photograph, by staff photographer Murdo MacLeod.

This is not only a deceptive photograph because it depicts cooling towers, which are used because real, visible pollution has become rare in developed countries. This image has deliberately been edited in Photoshop to make steam look like smoke. When have you ever seen cooling towers emit black smoke? They don’t. They always emit steam and cannot emit anything other than steam. Steam is white. The photographer certainly is guilty of dishonesty, and the editors at The Guardian are either complicit, or they are too naïve and uninformed to be editors. Odds are, the newspaper meant to manipulate its readers into accepting a certain environmental narrative.

What about the stereotypical image of starving African children that pervades Western media and shopping malls, designed to convince people to donate funds to charity organisations? It’s marketing. Marketing for a supposedly good cause, perhaps, but marketing nonetheless.

Charity marketers use photographs like these to evoke emotions and create stereotypes in people’s minds. Never having been to Africa, Western audiences don’t think just one child looks like this. They think many, or perhaps even all, African children look like this. For decades, they have been bombarded with the notion that Africa is a basket case of perpetual hunger, poverty and disease, which needs to be saved by rich white people, guilt-ridden by their own comfortable existence.

Does this photograph represent a starving child that needs help? Yes, it does. Are there other children in this situation? Of course there are. But is this image representative of Africa? Absolutely not. They emerge from exceptional situations, usually in countries that are at war or have collapsed under the weight of socialism and corruption. In this case, the image is from a war-torn region in South Sudan.

The general trend in Africa is, however, far more positive than stereotypical charity marketing images would have you believe. African under-five child mortality has declined steeply since 1950, from one in three to one in 10. Undernourishment has also shown a steady decline, almost halving in the last 25 years.

These charts won’t convince many people to donate to charities, however. Charities need to market their cause just as much as any life insurer or toothpaste maker has to market their product. They need to manipulate people’s emotions, and they do so without shame. But their photographs, however heart-wrenching, do not represent reality.

Which brings us to this month’s climate controversy, brought to you by the supposedly respected magazine National Geographic. “Heart-Wrenching Video Shows Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land,” reads the headline.

This is what climate change looks like,” read the captions, set to grave, mournful piano and strings. “This starving polar bear was spotted by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen while on an expedition in the Baffin Islands. 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.”

Pass the tissues, would you? Now, there’s no sugar-coating this. National Geographic, like the Daily Mail, is peddling bullshit. This is not what climate change looks like, and this is not representative of polar bears. They are not starving, and this footage has nothing to do with climate change. It’s all lies.

Let’s set out just a few reasons why this is brazen manipulation. The photographer, Paul Nicklen, is a founder of SeaLegacy, which is “a collective of some of the most experienced and renowned photographers, filmmakers and storytellers working on behalf of our oceans”.

They admit that “all of these pictures have more power than scientists, or voices, or anything else. … Vision is what drives humans”. They want to “start driving this global debate on the effects we’re having on this planet”. They “hope that the work that we create will compel people to do something about this”.

That all sounds admirable, as well as a lot of fun, so you should absolutely donate to fund their photographic expeditions. They cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop, after all, so Nicklen and his colleagues have to produce very dramatic photos to keep the money rolling in. However, as we’ll see, their contribution to “the global debate” is not entirely honest.

Nicklen has published pictures of dead polar bears before, to illustrate the supposed impact of climate change. In 2015 he posted a photo of a dead bear taken in 2014 in Svalbard, a Norwegian island group located about midway between that country and the north pole. It was picked up by viral news sites. He added the comment: “In all of my years of growing up in the Arctic and later, working as a biologist, I had never found a dead polar bear. It is now becoming much more common.”

The absurdity of this statement should be obvious. In the National Geographic piece Nicklen claims to have seen more than 3,000 polar bears. And never once a dead one? Much like elephants, polar bears do not have natural enemies. This means that most polar bears die of starvation in the wild. But it’s as if Nicklen believes it doesn’t happen if he doesn’t photograph it, and is an alarming crisis if he does. And none of his fearmongering requires any actual data, because he has photographs of dead and dying bears. You can’t read data tables through tears, anyway.

The truth is that when Nicklen took that photograph polar bears were doing better than ever in Svalbard, despite several years of poor sea ice cover.

The most recent video is of a polar bear on Baffin Island. On Baffin Island, the polar bear population is stable, so this bear is not representative of anything out of the ordinary.

In fact, polar bears are doing well globally. Out of 19 different “management units”, with separate population counts, only one is reported to be in decline, and two are increasing. The remaining populations for which data is available are reported to be stable, according to the WWF.

In 2008, when the US declared the polar bear to be a threatened species, I compiled a chart from every population study I could find, and concluded that polar bear populations had been stable since 1972, with recent estimates ranging between 20,000 and 25,000 individuals. Almost 10 years later, in 2017, the WWF reports conservative estimates of between 22,000 and 31,000 individuals. Watch out for these to be revised upwards, not downwards, in future.

Arctic sea ice extent has been lower than expected for at least a decade, but there is no evidence that polar bears are in any kind of distress. All the alarmists have is a theory that says if sea ice extent keeps declining, then eventually it must reduce polar bear habitat and feeding range, which must impact their populations. The threat to polar bears is entirely speculative. There is no possible way that Nicklen can be taking photographs of the dramatic impact of global warming on polar bears, right now, because there is none.

All he saw was a starving polar bear. Nobody knows why it was starving. It was not examined for injury, disease, or age. The video Nicklen captured was nothing unusual at all, and even if polar bears were dying because of global warming, his video wouldn’t demonstrate this. As it is, it had nothing to do with climate change at all.

Polar bears are thriving. The real news is why expert predictions that polar bears would be decimated by sea ice levels as low as those we’ve experienced in the last decade have not come true.

Claiming that a few dead or dying polar bears are “what climate change looks like” is just as stupid as saying climate change isn’t real because we have photos of fat polar bears in high summer when there is no ice. That National Geographic stoops to such unscientific and nakedly manipulative dishonesty is a disgrace. DM

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