Two events next week juxtapose two conflicting conclusions on the current health and future for polar bears. Behind the science, there’s also a juicy personal clash
Are the great, charismatic polar bears, all white, cuddly-looking and dangerous, caught in the death grip of climate change?Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Coming next Tuesday to Toronto’s swanky Yorkville district, it’s the 2018 Polar Bear Showdown, an international display of conflicting views on the state of polar-bear science. Are the great, charismatic creatures, all white, cuddly-looking and dangerous, caught in the death grip of climate change?
At one corner in Yorkville, in the ballroom of the upmarket Four Seasons Hotel, Polar Bears International (PBI) will stage a grand, $15,000-a-table gala to raise funds to protect the allegedly threatened Arctic species from the ravages of our addiction to fossil fuels. Sponsored by a klatch of corporate goody-two-shoes — a couple of Canadian banks, a major accounting outfit, The Globe and Mail — and filled with razzle-dazzle entertainment and good food, the purpose of the event is to mark International Polar Bear Day and draw attention to PBI’s science-based effort to sound a global polar-bear alarm.
At another corner, exactly one block away, in the Founders’ Room at the down-market Toronto Reference Library, the Global Warming Policy Foundation of London, England will launch a new report on the state of polar bears by Susan Crockford, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. There will be no entertainment, and no food, but the science will be far superior.
As a science showdown, the Yorkville events juxtapose two conflicting conclusions on the current health and future prospects for polar bears amid climate change. Behind the science, there’s also a juicy personal clash.
The chief scientist at Polar Bears International is Steven Amstrup, adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming and a leading purveyor of the theory that climate change could exterminate polar bears from the Arctic regions. In recent months, Amstrup has launched direct attacks on Crockford and joined others in producing what can only be described as junk-science attempts to undermine her polar-bear research. In return, Crockford recently published a critique of Amstrup’s decades-long campaign to portray polar bears as an endangered species and establish them as the poster-species for climate change.
Crockford’s conclusion is that PBI’s chief scientist and prime motivational guide, whose biographic page contains a catalogue of polar-bear alarmism, spent more than a decade creating a media scare that drove many (including Al Gore) to believe in a threat that didn’t exist. As Crockford wrote in a posting on her polarbearscience.com blog last month: “Polar bear experts who falsely predicted that roughly 17,300 polar bears would be dead by now (given sea ice conditions since 2007) have realized their failure has not only kicked their own credibility to the curb, it has taken with it the reputations of their climate change colleagues.”
Crockford’s new paper is aimed at a wide audience of teachers, scientists, students, decision-makers and the general public. It should be required reading for attendees at the Polar Bear Day gala. An executive summary of the report, State of the Polar Bear Report 2017, says that global polar-bear numbers have been stable or have risen since 2005, despite lower summer sea ice levels: “Overly pessimistic media responses to recent polar bear issues have made heartbreaking news out of scientifically insignificant events.”
As of this writing, one of those insignificant heartbreaking events — the video of a lone and apparently starving polar bear — adorns PBI’s website and serves as part of the sales pitch for next Tuesday’s gala in Yorkville. The video went viral in December, but has since been widely criticized. As veteran British environment writer Fred Pearce wrote recently in New Scientist magazine: “Emaciated, it stumbled across a green Arctic landscape without a speck of snow or ice in sight …Media outlets seized on the video as an example of how climate change is killing its poster child. But behind the headlines is an awkward question: have climate change activists chosen the wrong mascot?”
Pearce notes that the theory of looming polar-bear extinction has proved wrong. With rising temperatures in the Arctic and less ice “the polar bear population should have crashed. It hasn’t. If anything, numbers are up compared with 10 years ago.” Population numbers are also up since 1973, when hunting bans were put in place. While Pearce still sees the bears at some risk from a variety of threats, current estimates suggest “the species is not at immediate risk of extinction.”
Another recent commentary makes a similar point. In a release summarizing a recent polar-bear conference in Fairbanks, Alaska, an organization funded by the Russian Geographical Society quotes a Russian conservation official, Yegor Vereshchagin, on the fate of polar bears in Russia’s Chukotka region, across the Bering Sea from Alaska. “Both scientific data and traditional knowledge prove that nothing threatens our bears. During spring counts of dens we often find female bears with three cubs, which proves that the population is in good shape and there is no danger of a decrease in the population.”
Surely the attendees, corporate sponsors and organizers of that big Yorkville gala will find it instructive if they were to download Crockford’s paper when it is released by the Global Warming Policy Foundation next Tuesday, a few hours before their ritzy event.