In what can only be regarded as a marketing triumph for the global-warming camp, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it was listing the polar bear as a federally "threatened" species. (Several leading environmental groups had petitioned the government back in 2005.)
While the move might not seem like a big deal to most consumers, the environmental marketing cognoscenti say it potentially could have a hefty impact in communicating the impact of global warming to a mass market that still doesn't quite believe such a thing exists. "The polar bear is the poster boy of climate change," says Hugh Hough, founder of Green Team, a New York ad and communications agency that helps companies audit their supply chain, and then promote authentic environmental and sustainable activities.
Environmental groups, naturally, pounced on the government's decision as a sign that the Bush administration is finally acknowledging the impact of climate change. And that, Hough thinks, means that the whole concept of global warming--long denounced by right-wingers as leftist malarkey--is inching closer to Middle America.
While it's true that most Americans believe that global warming is a big deal--a study released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center says that 73% of Americans agree that it is a "very or somewhat serious problem"--that statistic masks sharp partisan divides. About 57% of Democrats and 46% of independents say that global warming is a very serious problem, Pew says, while only 22% of Republicans do.
But that's changing, and Hough points out that all three presidential candidates, for example, have vowed to address the issue: "The acceptance of climate change as a problem is something that's more mainstream than most people think, and when you can consider where it stood even two or three years ago, that's a pretty big difference."
The Alliance for Climate Protection, the group founded by Al Gore and which launched its $300 million, multi-year "We" campaign in March, says it has signed up nearly 1.3 million people to combat global warming. In a statement, it calls the bear's new status "a step in the right direction. The scientific community believes the polar bear needs protection, and so do the American people, who have been calling for this action in large numbers."
Certainly, polar bears seem to have the symbolic edge. Ever since actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio appeared in Vanity Fair last year with Knut, the polar bear that has come to symbolize the issue for many Europeans, it's been clear that the big white guys may have what it takes to cross over to their native North America. (In Germany, Knutmania continues--now one year old, he was commemorated with his own stamp last month.)
And while it's probably too soon to say whether polar bears will become the de facto mascot for global warming in the U.S., they're certainly more appealing than krill, plankton, or Siberian pines. And for environmental messaging, cute matters: Think of how much mileage environmentalists have gotten out of pandas and baby seals.
Besides, Hough adds, "thank goodness it's not some ugly little rodent. The polar bear has charisma."