American cultural narratives of the Arctic could undergird climate change denial

: Vachula examines how public images and discourse of the Arctic may affect climate change skepticism in a recently published article in Media, Culture & Society.


By Richard S. Vachula,

Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences,

Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.

In American popular culture, the Arctic has often been depicted as a cold, alien, and uninhabitable wasteland. However, in contrast, the same region has been embraced as the image and poster-region of climate change awareness media; a sensitively fragile region that will melt away without intervention. Acknowledgment and recognition of this juxtaposition of contradicting ideologies could prove an important instrument in combatting American climate change denial.

Cultural connotations of the Arctic

The Arctic has become coupled with perceptions of climate change in the American public consciousness. From a scientific perspective, this is likely due to Polar amplification; the effects of anthropogenic climate change are more clearly pronounced in the region. From a sociocultural perspective, in an audio-visually-obsessed society, images and films of the region, its biology, and its geology have become the icon of anthropogenic change1. While from a scientific standpoint, the use of these images may seem nothing less than fitting, an examination of the cultural connotations that accompany them reveals contradictory narratives.

The roots of Western cultural perceptions of the Arctic are colonial in nature. The late nineteenth century saw a surge of Arctic exploration as the Pax Brittannica left naval officers without engagement and in need of proving grounds2. Western readerships followed the nationalistic, masculinity-laced expeditions of the likes of Peary, Cook, and Amundsen as they raced to reach the North Pole. Throughout it all, a clear, mediatized image of the Arctic was created: the icy, desolate region was not to be trifled with and was intrinsically difficult to endure3.

This narrative was reinforced during the Cold War. In an age of proxy wars and far-off, easily dissociated conflict, the Arctic once again served as a competitive arena. Numerous films both illustrate and broadcast the attitudes of the Arctic as a foreboding environment1. Furthermore, the distal nature of this proving ground, whose only relation to the populace was via popular media, further accentuated the distance between high and mid-latitudes. The mental distance was illustrated in the projection of the Arctic environment in science fiction films. Star War’s Planet Hoth is oddly reminiscent of the U.S. Army’s Camp Century, a compound built into the Greenland Ice Sheet; a group of patriots live in a self-sustaining station in a fight against an opponent with an oppressive ideology.

Arctic images of climate change

In contrast, more recent media depictions of the Arctic ask viewers to engage in an act of cognitive dissonance by sympathizing with the fragility of the region at the vanguard of anthropogenic climate change. Melting ice and glaciers were found to be the most salient images associated with climate change in the minds of the American public. In light of the deeply rooted cultural connotations of the Arctic cryosphere as unconquerable and superior to human will, it is perplexing to observe that we attempt to garner the acceptance of vulnerability with the same image.

The polar bear has become a commonplace symbol of climate change media as their depicted struggles evoke an emotional appeal from viewers4. However, this mammalian symbol, though perhaps a ready medium for anthropomorphic projection, might dehumanize the effects of climate change, thereby echoing the dissociation of the region in our cultural history. Why are we so reliant upon bears when there are numerous indigenous populations whose livelihoods teeter in the balance of anthropogenic climate change?

Unfortunately, Arctic humanities scholars tend to agree that most Westerners view the polar region as an area where human existence cannot and does not exist permanently; a white tableau without clear delineations of time or space5. However, reality plainly disagrees. As examples, Sami, Inuit, and Eskimo populations are currently forced to deal with the foremost effects of climate change in Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska, respectively. Where are these narratives and images in popular media and discourse? Undoubtedly intertwined with the same presumptive Western attitudes that marginalize other indigenous peoples, the dissociation and suppression of these indigenous narratives could stifle potentially more salient, human, and effective climate change imagery.

Cultural conscientiousness in science

In sum, historical and cultural connotations of the Arctic are characterized by frigidity, hostility, competition, and dissociation. However, a thorough understanding of the effects and reality of climate change requires a reconfiguration of these learned cultural perceptions. Reliance upon polar bears and ice as symbols of climate change, while salient and appropriate, could undermine the effectiveness of science communication. Furthermore, these images neglect representing the indigenous peoples who ultimately face the effects of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions that occurred, like Western views of their home, in a sphere far, far away.

In a political climate that challenges the ability of American scientists to broadcast climate change findings, it is imperative that those who can communicate their findings do so in an efficacious manner. Despite nearly unanimous agreement amongst scientists, the anthropogenic nature of climate change remains a hotly polemic topic in the political sphere. While science may have been regarded as a discipline independent of political influence in the past, recent events illustrate that boundaries have become less distinct. As such, it is now imperative that researchers take conscientious steps to formulate their findings for the general public and take into account the reality that in the public consciousness, science and society do not share a distinct border.


  1. MacKenzie, S. & Stenport, A.W. Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic (Edinburgh Univ.Press, 2014).
  2. McGhee, R. The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).
  3. Holland, C. Farthest North: The Quest for the North Pole (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994).
  4. Hulme, M. Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).
  5. Jørgensen, D. Northscapes: History, Technology, and the Making of Northern Environments (Univ. of British Columbia Press, 2014).