This reality is especially evident in reporting the impact of climactic change on animals, as some animals are perceived as having higher conservation and aesthetic value than others. European and North American elites have claimed more appreciation of these values as a mark of distinction since the turn of the 19 th century, according to Karl Jacoby. These values were institutionalized and exported to the rest of the world in the setting of a global conservation regime that emerged in the context of European empires and westward expansion in North America.
These values were popularized with the rise of car culture after World War II, as large numbers of North Americans began visiting wild places in their leisure time, as explained by Roderick Neumann. They also became enshrined by the Walt Disney-style nature films that became popular during this period, and by the dramatic international success of Bernard Grizmek's book Serengeti Shall Not Die! For the most part, middle-class and formally-educated people embraced these values.
Over time, the popularization of charismatic fauna in the media has literally increased the value of certain animals. Images of soaring eagles sell pickup trucks, wild mustangs sell cigarettes, and a cartoon tiger sells cereal. Popular tourist destinations are marketed by promises of seeing grizzly bears, jaguars, scarlet macaws, kangaroos, elephants, lions, and rhinos in distant and exotic locations. These same types of animals and exotic locales are also a major selling point for films, such as Finding Nemo, Madagascar, and The Wild. Finally, the association of certain animals with major conservation organizations has been a source of advantage in a highly-competitive funding environment. The World Wildlife Fund panda is one of the most successful logos in the world. The African Wildlife Foundation's ivory ban campaign was the most successful direct mail charity solicitation of all time. Ironically, it contributed to an international treaty that resulted in an explosion of elephant populations in Southern Africa, such that the animals began destroying their own habitat.
Some species have become icons for conservation, while others have been neglected, even though their species may be under threat of extinction. The iconic value of some species is rising, while the iconic value of others is falling. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, many environmental movements and nongovernmental organizations used images of whales to promote their conservation campaigns. In the context of anti-global warming, however, polar bears and penguins have come to assume pole-position in the effort to sensitize the masses to the seriousness of environmental problems. This makes sense, as it is clearly easier for lay people to grasp the relationship between these animals and the dangers of global warming.
The anthropomorphization of Antarctic animals in Happy Feet, produced in Imax 3-D, along with images of Knut the baby polar bear being bottle-fed at the Berlin Zoo, has also contributed to increased identification with these animals. And both these species naturally display characteristics similar to those typical of human beings: they can walk on two feet, their body forms are in many ways similar to the human body, and they display highly complex forms of social behavior. These developments have not been entirely negative. Documentaries such as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which features an animated polar bear crying in the middle of the ocean and Luc Jacquet's The March of The Penguins have played a major role in raising public awareness of global warming.
As icons, however, these animals represent only the most visible consequences of global warming and climate change. They stand for the problems of global warming symbolically, but they cannot stand for all that is wrong. The iconification of global warming through images of these animals for the most part glosses over the complex dynamic living processes of ecosystems. Instead, they emphasize the geological impact of rising temperatures on the habitats of these animals, which are easily captured through images of polar bears struggling across melting ice fields and drowning in the process. Rising temperatures are also easily represented through images such as the melting ice cap on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and they are experienced directly by people during highly-publicized heat waves.
The iconification of global warming through images of certain animal species may keep the public from understanding the extent and complexity of these phenomena. While climate patterns have always oscillated between given thresholds, for example, maximum and minimum numbers of hurricanes per season, climatic oscillations now show a tendency to increasingly occur at upper-end thresholds. What is at issue is that the iconification of these changes through images of animals conceals their complexity.
It is important to note, however, that the exact causal mechanisms that link the two are so complex that they have not yet been completely understood and explained by scientists. While, on average, the global temperature of the planet has increased, the manifestation of its consequences in terms of climate-related phenomena varies greatly from region to region. In some regions, it is associated with higher incidence of tropical and subtropical storms; in others, extreme rainfall and flooding; and in yet others, the onset of extreme drought. It has entailed record-beating temperatures in Europe, and an increase in erratic and destructive weather patterns in North America.
The plight of polar bears and penguins may call public attention to the fact that the melting of glaciers that began at the end of the last glacial period has accelerated at an exponential rate in the past four decades. However, it does not highlight the broader ecosystem impacts of the melting of the Earth's ice reserves. Many ecosystems of the world that simultaneously depend on, and sustain, animal life may disappear under the ocean, as may entire nation-states in the Pacific.
Erosion is another geological problem that occurs as a consequence of global warming and the related increase in the number and strength of storms. This is a particularly acute problem in areas of the globe that have already been subjected to human-caused erosion or land destruction. An example of this problem can be found in the Bayou areas in the Mexican Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the United States. The construction of human-made water canals had slowly deprived Bayous of much needed sediments that the Mississippi previously deposited there during its yearly cycles, according to MacGillivray Freeman.
As a result, extensive marsh areas that formerly protected New Orleans from floods and ocean surges underwent a process of severe erosion. This erosion tends to accelerate when the Bayous are hit by storms. To a great extent, the incalculable damages New Orleans suffered in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina were caused by the absence of previously-existing protective marshes. Meanwhile, the continent of Africa is currently undergoing processes of desertification that surpass previously known rates. As deserts expand into previously non-desert ecosystems, the existence and survival of the plants and animals that were part of these ecosystems is seriously threatened. Consequently, the role of animals in the ecological processes of these systems is also compromised.
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