Imag(in)ing Polar Bears – The Creation of an Icon for Climate Change Communication

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Dorothea Born, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
Polar Bears are big, white, fluffy, cute – and endangered by climate change. Over the past years these large mammals have been established as the mascots used in science communication to raise awareness for the imminent threats of climate change. But how did they emerge as icons to visualize this topic that is both controversial and difficult to communicate? Comparing the US National Geographic and the German GEO, this study examines the central role of popular science magazines in establishing polar bears as icons for climate change communication. Located on the threshold between the scientific community and the mass media these magazines constitute spaces where knowledge is negotiated and recontextualized in order to pursue specific communication goals and raise public awareness. Using the method of critical visual discourse analysis, I focus on the cultural politics of images of the two magazines’ countries of issue. Investigating images and articles about polar bears and climate change from 1992-2012, years during which the issue of global warming became of international relevance, I found striking differences between the two magazines. National Geographicdisplays a shift within its visual style of depicting polar bears once climate change was recognized as a fact in the magazine. While in earlier years polar bears are displayed as anthropomorphic, the focus shifts to portraying them as part of the endangered Artic ecosystem in 2005. However, establishing polar bears as icons for climate change also builds on the earlier anthropomorphized image of the bear, a projection surface for individual suffering. In contrast, GEO articles on climate change seldom report on polar bears. This can be explained by the different political cultures of Germany and the USA, especially regarding the issue of global warming. While in the USA the topic is highly controversial, such a dispute was never central in Germany. Climate change was more readily accepted as a fact and also communicated as such within GEO. My study thus shows how polar bears became an icon for climate change communication within specific political and cultural settings, highlighting how national contexts shape and impact climate change communication strategies. It further opens up questions on how visual communication strategies influence public awareness within different political cultures.