Child, Rather than Polar Bear, as Icon of Global Warming?

Emerging climate science findings and related public health concerns give rise to a National Public Radio broadcast examination of public health as the most compelling message for climate change communicators.


A National Public Radio “All Things Considered” broadcast by science reporter Richard Harris asks whether “a child” — rather than the iconic polar bear — should be “the current poster child for global warming.”

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Polar bears come in for a lot of bad press as icons of a warming world.

Harris reported September 10 that “some health officials” think so. He pointed to “emerging science” that he said shows people respond more favorably to warnings about a warmer climate when they involve health, rather than environmental, issues.

“This is a new topic for public health,” George Luber of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, told Harris. “This is emerging largely as a result that the scientific evidence around climate change has evolved to the point that public health feels confident engaging the science — that this is a credible threat.”

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Perhaps young children, symbolizing the need to protect public health, should be the ‘poster child’ for our warming climate?

American University communications professor and researcher Matthew Nisbet pointed to research indicating people indifferent to climate change as a concern warm-up to the subject when it is seen as a health issue. “Not only does it lend to emotionally engaging responses among a broad cross section of Americans, it also helps to localize the issue for people and to view the issue as more personally relevant,” Nisbet said. He pointed to public health concerns as “a value that’s widely held across the political spectrum.”

Not all may agree, Harris reported. He also interviewed George Marshall, of the Oxford, England-based Climate Outreach Information Network, who said he has doubts. “There’s a real danger people will just hold their hands over their ears and say, ‘I don’t want to hear this!’” Marshall said.

The five-minute/24-second Harris broadcast and a transcript of it are available online.

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6 Responses to Child, Rather than Polar Bear, as Icon of Global Warming?

  1. klem says:

    Um I think the child icon would be a great idea. It would force the viewer to wonder why environmentalists want to spend billions on ineffectual and mostly symbolic wind turbines, rather than spending that money on malaria mosquito nets. Nets are cheap and save more children per dollar than even the prettiest of ineffectual wind turbines. A child icon would show the green movement to be rather hypocritical.

    So I think it is a marvelous idea. Just my opinion of course.

    • melty says:

      Hey klem, So what you’re saying is that if we move towards renewable energy and conservation, we would not have enough money to spend on malaria nets. Can’t we do both? I mean, look around. I see plenty of waste just in my street (do we really need to drive 2-ton SUVs in order to move one person? No, we don’t — the truth is that we are vain and fearful). But we are also truly rich and capable of making a difference in preventing disease and climate disruption. The malaria net won’t be much use if the child doesn’t have anything to eat because the crops failed and all the livestock died. Just sayin’.

    • Martin Lack says:

      Klem, a post-Carbon era is coming and we can not stop it. However, the longer we resist it, the greater the ultimate reduction in the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity will be; and the more impoverished the existence of all humans. Therefore, your attempt to paint environmentalists as heartless or misanthropic (or whatever) is, at best, ill-judged; and, at worst, insane.

      Let me put it another way: Fossil fuels are going to run out one day. Deal with it.

  2. Excellent. As a parent, denying climate change is the same as denying your child a liveable future. It is time we ‘call a spade a spade.’

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    A picture of children would make an appropriate background to a story on ‘sustainable population’, don’t you think?

    It was well-known back in the 1960s that population growth was outstripping resources, and that disaster would inevitably strike within a few decades, with western civilisation collapsing within a couple more. That’s still as true as it ever was.

    And as the rest of the world emerges from poverty, their energy use is going to rocket up. As people live longer and healthier lives it’s only going to get worse. Which is why many people have advocated population control, and a severe reduction of the human population. It’s a history and an image the greens still have problems with.

    On the whole, I think you’re better off with the polar bears.

    Polar bears were and still are an emotionally effective image, the problem with them was that a lot of the hype was inaccurate and misleading, and they got attacked on the facts. And once people knew they were misleading, the cuteness and the frequency with which they were used just made it look more like a cynical marketing campaign.

    I don’t see why pictures of young children would be any different. The message they’re selling would more complicated to explain, less direct in its connection to the picture. It’s a transparent emotional appeal, and in a modern world full of marketing and advertising that sort of thing triggers people’s alarms that they’re being manipulated.

    It’s really not for me to tell you guys what to do, but I’d suggest a bit more subtlety.

  4. Actually I have started saying in my lectures about Climate Change that the generation living on Earth now, will during their lifetime learn to know if the human race will go extinct or survive. No, the extinction will not happen during the life of any person living today – but the process will be running over the edge during our lifetime if we will not stop the emissions of fossile carbon NOW!
    My references to this you can find here:
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/01/28/0812721106.full.pdf+html
    http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/67.full.pdf+html
    http://www.amazon.com/Long-Thaw-Changing-Climate-Essentials/dp/0691136548

    25% of CO2 we emit will stay in the atmosphere for not hundred, not thousand but hundred thousand years.
    We will reach 4 degrees above the preindustrial level maybe as soon as in beginning of 2060.
    The window of opportunity is closing down very fast and predictions of the world with 2 degrees (=1/3 of species extinct), 3 degrees (=Amazonas burning down, runaway Climate Change) might not be accurate. We have not yet reached the 1 degree limit and it is obvious for everyone that things are not going as assumed in the 2007 years IPCC report.