The video, which the magazine posted to the internet on Dec. 11, 2017, showed an emaciated polar bear chewing on garbage in a cove on Nunavut’s Somerset Island.
It was taken by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier of SeaLegacy, an organization that produces video and photography in an effort to spread ocean conservation awareness.
Nicklen posted the video on Instagram, saying, “This is what starvation looks like.”
National Geographic would later post the video with subtitles which read, “This is what climate change looks like.”
It would go on to draw more views that any National Geographic video ever has on its website — with over 1.5 million on YouTube alone. Global News would cover it too.
An editor’s note attached to an article in the magazine’s August 2018 issue said, “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 December 2017 video about the animal.”
In the article, Mittermeier wrote that the video drew an enormous response.
Some were thankful that they had drawn attention to climate change, while others, who deny climate change even exists, said the video was “another example of environmentalist exaggeration.”
“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.
This is not the first time that environmental issues have been subject to conflations or exaggerations.
In 2016, the sinking of five islands in the Solomon Islands was blamed on climate change — but that wasn’t quite the case, The Guardian reported.
It was more accurate to say that “sea level rise” was responsible, rather than tying the phenomenon directly to climate change, said Dr. Simon Albert, who authored a study examining the islands.
And in 2013, David Suzuki told a university audience that if a fourth plant at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant failed, then it’s “bye bye Japan and everybody on the West Coast of North America should evacuate.”
A study out of Simon Fraser University later determined that B.C.’s coast didn’t suffer any adverse effects from that disaster.