Polar Bears Used to Highlight the Fight Between Scientists and Climate Change Deniers

The fight between climate scientists and climate change deniers has caught the polar bear in its crosshairs. In an article entitled, “Climate Change Denialists Say Polar Bears Are Fine. Scientists Are Pushing Back,” Erica Goode details the battle over an article appearing in the April issue of the peer reviewed journal BioScience, a publication of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.  The article is the work of some 14 individuals and looks at internet blog discussions of global warming in relation to the health of polar bears. The article argues that polar bears have become a “poster species” for global warming and thus a target of climate change deniers as part of a misinformation scheme about the effects of global warming. Although originally published online in November 2017, it seems that the recent print publication of the journal has spurred on great debate.

The article in BioScience is short, at only 5 pages of text with 2 additional pages of references, but it has clearly disturbed those who deny the existence of global warming and climate change. The article begins by quoting figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) that the year 2016 was the hottest on record, followed by 2015 and 2014. Several other studies are cited regarding the cause of the warming being explained by rising greenhouse gas concentrations, which will only increase if left unchecked and lead to the harmful effects of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and devastation to ecosystems across the planet. The authors then turn to the “consensus gap”; which is the gap, described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), between a public that remains unconvinced of the human influence on global warming and the current scientific agreement that on the causes and process of AGW. In exploring this consensus gap, the authors looked at the influence that internet blogs exert over the public. Specific blogs including Watts Up With That (WUWT), Climate Depot (CD), and Junk Science (JS) were identified as continuing to deny the causes and/or effects of AGW.

Polar bears serve as a prominent focus of the debate on climate change in many of the blogs identified. Polar bears often feature in the questions surrounding climate change, because a polar bear’s very existence is predicated on its habitat, the polar ice, which melts as the temperatures rise, thus depriving the species of its means of hunting for food. Polar bears are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA). Some subpopulations are still faring well, but it is a fact that the shrinking polar ice will have an impact on the ability of polar bears to hunt for seals.

The authors identified 90 blogs covering climate change and which mentioned both polar bears and sea ice. The blogs were analyzed based on position on the extent of Arctic ice and polar bear status and each entry was coded for its position. The coding was from 1 -3 for the ice, with 1 being a rapid decline in ice and 3 being a natural change in the amount of ice; furthermore, the polar bears were coded from 4-6 with 4 being polar bears are threatened with extinction by AGW and 6 being polar bears will adapt to changes in the ice whether from AGW or natural variation. The authors also looked at every peer-reviewed scientific paper investigating both polar bears and sea ice and score the positions contained therein. The authors felt that none of the blogs offered a middle viewpoint on climate change. Half of the blogs took a science-based approach and half were classified as climate denier blogs. The scientific based blogs supported arguments that warming is rapidly reducing the Arctic ice and threatening the mid-to long-term survival of polar bears. The science denier blogs focused on uncertainties as to the effects of AGW on the Arctic ice and that this uncertainty cast doubts on the present and future trends forecast for polar bears.

The authors noted that about 80% of the denier blogs referenced a single blog known as Polar Bear Science, which is written by Susan Crockford. According to the authors, Crockford has not conducted original research nor published peer-reviewed articles on the effects of sea ice on the population of polar bears. Her publications have been limited to notes and briefings through the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which is a conservative think tank. Crockford’s position is that polar bears will easily adapt to any changes in the Arctic ice levels. According to the NYT article, Dr. Crockford is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and has published some peer-reviewed articles that include a discussion of polar bears.

The main thrust of the article is that scientists need to be advocates for the science that they conduct and publicly counter any of the climate deniers rather than hiding in their labs. Although dismissive of Dr. Crockford’s position since the authors believe it lacks scientific data to support it, there was no personal attack on her. However, the New York Times article reveals that Crockford has not adopted a similar position. In December 2017, Crockford characterized the article as “academic rape” in a tweet. Dr. Crockford and others filed Freedom of Information requests at the universities of three of the authors. Crockford also sought retraction of the article, but the editor at BioScience determined that there were no grounds for retraction, but did edit some of the sentences in the final published version. Others also came out against the article including Hans LaBohm, the editor of climategate.nl who wrote to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences asking for the lead author, Jeffrey A. Harvey, to be reprimanded for conduct that was “unworthy of serious scientists.” Climate Audit labeled the article a “hit piece” and the GWPF had a headlines that the authors attacked Dr. Crockford for “telling the truth about polar bears.”

Suggested Reading:

Erica Goode, Climate Skeptics Say Polar Bears Are Fine. Scientists Beg to Differ, N.Y. Times, Apr. 11, 2018, at A7.


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