Decimation of the polar bear: bearfaced lies?

A leading expert in forecasting tells spiked that research into the impact of climate change on polar bears has been shockingly shoddy.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Despite the steady growth of the polar bear population over the past 40 years – it now stands between 20,000 and 25,000 – there is no shortage of doom-laden reports about the bears’ imminent demise on our warming planet. Some refer to polar bears as the ‘canaries of climate change’. Indeed, so strong is the misery-mongering about polar bears that the US is currently trying to list them as an endangered species; and its campaign has been aided and abetted by several pieces of US government-sponsored research into polar bear numbers. Yet according to experts in the field of forecasting methods, official rumours of the polar bear’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The forecasters’ claims cast a very different light on the prevailing consensus on the inevitable decimation of the polar bear population. Towards the end of 2006, Senator Kempthorne, secretary for the United States Department of the Interior, announced America’s plans to list ‘this Great Icon of the Arctic’ as an endangered species (1). This assumed that rising temperatures were causing the polar bears’ Arctic habitat to ‘literally melt away’. However, assumptions do not – well, not yet anyway – provide sufficient grounds for public policy. So, in order to support its case, the Department of the Interior commissioned the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to research the effect climate change would have on the Arctic region. And with this, they surmised, they could predict the future of the polar bear, too.

The conclusions were unequivocal. Steven Amstrup of the USGS Alaska Science Centre, co-author of one of the commissioned reports, stated: ‘As the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear.’ (2) Since then, matters have continued apace, and this January the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works convened to examine ‘Threats and Protection for the Polar Bear’. However, despite the best efforts of the pro-listing lobby, there is just one problem: the methods used to divine the fate of the polar bear due to climate change are not very scientific.

So argues Scott Armstrong, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, Kesten Green, senior research fellow at Monash University, and Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at Harvard, in a report commissioned by the State of Alaska: here).

Armstrong and his colleagues are no strangers to controversy. Last summer, they launched the ‘Global Warming Challenge’, betting Al Gore $10,000 that over the next 10 years global temperatures would remain about the same (see Put your money where your myth is, by Brendan O’Neill ). But while they are not averse to taking a contrarian line, this is not what drives them. As their audit makes clear, the forecasting principles contravened by the Department of the Interior reports are not esoteric points only of interest to mathematical pedants; rather, the Department contravened principles that are the scientific equivalent of common sense. For instance, according to Armstrong, the government-sponsored reports failed to ‘conduct experiments to evaluate forecasts,’ ‘be conservative in situations of high uncertainty or instability’, or ‘ensure that information is reliable and that measurement error is low’. These are just some of the 41 principles of scientific forecasting contravened.

If climate itself is difficult enough to predict, then attempting to predict the effect it will have on the polar bears’ habitat is doubly so. Moreover, the interactions between the polar bear and their environment add another set of variables to an already confusing whirl of possible scenarios. It is unsurprising, then, that a chain of assumptions compensate for the want of unambiguous evidence. This chain runs something like this: global warming will occur; summer sea ice will reduce and thin; polar bears will obtain less food by hunting from the sea ice than they do now; there will be no supplementary food; the polar bear population will decline; the endangered species act will help; and no other policies would prove as effective.

Such a causal whitewash occludes factors that should temper the wilder assertions of forecasting. For instance, the pro-listing Amstrup report fails to consider the species’ sheer adaptability. Having evolved from brown bears some 250,000 years ago, in that time, polar bears have experienced arctic conditions much warmer than they are now. As Amstrong told spiked: ‘Polar bears are adaptable – they’ve been around 250,000 years. They’ll keep figuring things out.’

Or take the forecasting imperative to ‘be conservative in situations of high uncertainty or instability’, an imperative that the government-sponsored researchers also ignored. Assuming that higher temperatures will lead to a decline in the polar bear population ignores the fact that lower temperatures have also had the same effect: for example, an abnormally high ice coverage during 1973-74 led to a fall in the polar bear population. Regional variability also sheds light on the difficulty of distinguishing correlation from causation. The Antarctic ice mass, for example, has actually been growing while the sea and air temperature has been increasing. At the same time, the depth-averaged oceanic temperature around the Southeastern Bering Sea has been cooling in 2006. And despite warming of local air temperatures by approximately 1.6 degrees the continental shelf of Canadian Beaufort Sea has seen no sharp decline in area. Such variability, indeed, uncertainty as to the precise environmental outcome of climatic changes has simply been eschewed in the reports Armstrong et al audited.

This gloomy prognosis for the polar bear is not surprising, however, when one considers that the secretary of the Interior employed the USGS to generate models to support the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the polar bear. In short, the science was always driven by political imperatives. Results that failed to lend unambiguous support to the desired outcome were always to be avoided. This indicates the role that science can play in political debate today. It becomes that which cannot be doubted, an instruction handed down from on high. In this context, the science always says ‘Thou shalt…’

But what of the object of all this research? Why has the polar bear itself become so politically significant? According to Armstrong ‘it’s such an emotional issue – people just think what nice beautiful animals they are’. Indeed, as Armstrong told spiked, during the Senate Committee meeting, Senator Barbara Boxer, a key sponsor of the legislation, backed up her constant citation of the Amstrup report with one main ploy: pictures of polar bears. When invocation of the ‘science’ fails to compel agreement, try emotional blackmail. Polar bears, the poster boys for man-made climate change, have come to symbolise man’s degradation of the environment. Their plight acts as a contemporary morality play: that something so majestic, so beautiful can be brought so low shows the extent of man’s unthinking folly.

Armstrong demands a slightly more robust attitude to fluctuations in the polar bear population. ‘The Eskimos regard it as “things change”, that it’s just the way things are’, he says. From those who are used to hunting polar bears, such a lack of sentimentality is perhaps to be expected. We should also call for less sentimentality in the broader debate about climate change and the future of the planet.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Read Polar population forecasts: a public policy forecasting audit here. To find out more visit The Global Warming Challenge.

Previously on spiked

We told spiked readers not to panic about polar bear extinction. Rob Lyons said cynical tales of human greed, backed by cute photos of cuddly creatures, is the polar opposite of the debate we need around climate change. Nathalie Rothschild said we should leave the hybridisation of animals and humans to the fantasy world of Walt Disney and Mick Hume said the tyranny of anthropomorphism is almost enough to make him an animal loather. Or read more at spiked issue Animals

(1) Interior Secretary Kempthorne Announces Proposal to List Polar Bears as Threatened Under Endangered Species Act, US Department of the Interior 27 December 2006

(2) Polar Bears: Alaska polar bears are doomed, Anchorage Daily News, 08 September 2007

(3) Polar Bear Population forecasts: A Public-Policy Forecasting Audit

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter