How COCE and IECA Helped Make a Bear
You’ve likely seen it by now – the sculpture of a polar bear transfixed by a towering line representing the rise in Global carbon dioxide emissions. The sculpture by Danish artist Jens Galschiot was first shown in Paris, and has been used since in some other settings, including a square in front of the Danish parliament.
What you may not know is that the story of the sculpture’s creation can be partly traced back to the Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE) in Boulder, Colorado last summer. It was my first IECA Conference, and I was eager to get as much out of the event as possible, presenting some of the WWF Arctic work, but also learning from others.
One of the things that has most interested me as a professional communicator is how to reach beyond the ranks of the converted, how to take messages to new audiences, and create a broader base for change. Some of the sessions at COCE focused on how art could be that communication silo-busting vehicle. Working for an NGO, the other thing that interested me is that art is (relatively) cheap as a communication vehicle – as one presenter noted “An environmental art project costing thousands got media worth millions”.
I was still digesting the COCE sessions when I got back to my desk in June, to see a pitch from one of my Danish WWF colleagues. “This guy wants to put a polar bear sculpture in Paris – have you got any money to help support it?”
I looked at the photo of the scale model of the sculpture. It set off some serious soul-searching. I had just given a talk at COCE that touched on what I’d call “biohagiography”, the problem of using an animal as a symbol of something, rather than just allowing it to be seen for what it is. Polar bears are iconic; perhaps too iconic. By focusing the weight of the message of Arctic climate change on a single species, we risk focusing people just on that single species, and on missing the message that this is a massive ecosystemic change, not just a clinging or swimming bear. Polar bears are also political. Inuit who live with the bears are annoyed by the coopting of the bear as a symbol of Arctic fragility, and Inuit are essential partners in much of Arctic conservation, both as landholders and decision-makers.
In the end it was the desire to reach people viscerally at a time when international climate negotiations needed a gut-punch that won out. We commissioned the sculpture and it stood in front of the Cité Universitaire in Paris for the duration of the negotiations. I don’t know exactly what impact the sculpture had. It did earn media, but I’m hoping even more that at some point, a negotiator passed the sculpture, swallowed hard, and went into the negotiating sessions with renewed resolve to get a better deal.