Umbrage alert! Last night, a half-length short form of the powerful and balanced documentary “The Politics of Polar Bears” aired across Canada on the CBC’s flagship TV news program, The National.
Right after it aired, they followed up with a lengthy online summary by the producer of the film, Reg Sherren (“Polar bears: Threatened species or political pawn?”, September 2, with video of the 19 minute short program). Check out the comments below it! Excerpts and my comments below.
UPDATED April 27 2015: Video now available on Youtube, imbedded below Full length video no longer available, short one at CBC here.
From Reg Sherren’s (2 September) summary article:
“For some time now the suggestion has been that polar bears are in trouble and that many sub-populations of Ursus maritimus are decreasing, making them an iconic symbol in the fight against global climate change.
But there remains an ongoing debate within the scientific community that studies polar bears and their populations about whether the narrative of declining numbers is a stark reality or convenient myth.
Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, has spent his decades-long career studying polar bears, and has been more outspoken than most about the peril the big bear may face in the coming years.
“Our estimation is that we probably won’t have polar bears in Churchill once we get out to mid-century … They could be gone in a couple of years.”
“Our estimations are, if we had a very early melt, and a very late freeze, we could see up to 50 per cent mortality in a single year. You put a couple of years like that back-to-back, and things could happen very quickly,” says Derocher, in reference to a worst-case scenario about certain sub-populations he has studied. [SJC – see my post here on that issue]
But not everyone agrees polar bears are in trouble. Biologist Mitchell Taylor has studied polar bears and advised governments for more than thirty years, living in the high Arctic for much of that time.
“They’ve certainly been around through the last interglacial period,” says Taylor. “During that interglacial it was warmer than it is now: we had pine trees on Baffin Island, deciduous forests north of the Arctic Circle. Polar bears had to have survived that or we wouldn’t be seeing polar bears now,” he says.
Taylor asserts that polar bear populations “don’t appear to be declining” in any group that he is “aware of so far,” and that the science of estimating polar bear numbers has never been precise. He says that many of the current estimates are based upon a lacking methodology, admitting that some of his previous work incorporated the allegedly faulty technique as well.
Taylor says the problem lies in the way population estimates are extrapolated from samples.
“When you don’t sample the whole area you underestimate survival, you underestimate population numbers, and in fact the culmination of those biases can result in a scientific estimate that suggests a decline when none exists.” [SJC – See my post here about that issue]
It was just over a decade ago, says Taylor, that the notion that polar bears could be threatened by climate change gained traction. But he takes issue with the IPCC’s projection models for sea ice changes in the Arctic.
In 2008, he signed the controversial Manhattan Declaration on climate change, which argued that there was no conclusive evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from modern industrial activity was causing catastrophic changes in global climate.
“There was only one perspective, and that was what was provided by the IPCC,” says Taylor.
Taylor says that because he lived in the north he had direct contact with the people in the area, giving him a unique perspective on what was really happening on the ground.
“What they were describing was quite simply inconsistent with what I was hearing from local people, what I was seeing myself.”
I call that balance: however, some readers don’t like to read or see anything that doesn’t support their own take on an issue.
The story concludes:
“The Polar Bear Specialist Group’s estimate of 25,000 polar bears currently left on the planet is in fact the highest figure proposed since researchers began attempting to count their numbers.
The international consortium of scientists has recently backed away from that number, however.
Dag Vongraven, chairman of the PBSG, writes in an email that a footnote will be added to information on polar bear populations provided by the group.
“As part of past status reports, the PBSG has traditionally estimated a range for the total number of polar bears in the circumpolar Arctic,” the statement says.
“Since 2005, this range has been 20-25,000. It is important to realize that this range never has been an estimate of total abundance in a scientific sense, but simply a qualified guess given to satisfy public demand.”
Derocher says he is confident in the science, especially when it comes to climate change.
”There’s no debate,” says Derocher. “Scientifically, there’s no debate.”
The models that project the loss of sea ice, he says, spell disaster for the polar bear.
Taylor is just as adamant.
“In the end nature will speak and it will be clear who knew what they were talking about and who didn’t.”
So, which biologist sounds like the rational, reasoning scientist to you?
Reflections on my House of Lords lecture: Healthy polar bears, less than healthy science August 28, 2014
Eemian excuses: the warm was different then, polar bears were fine November 12, 2013