Death of the polar bear as climate change icon validates Mitch Taylor’s skepticism

You could call it karma — the death of the polar bear icon after the shameful hubris of polar bear experts back in 2009.

That year, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group booted 20-year member Mitch Taylor out of their organization, explaining that his skeptical views on human-caused global warming were “extremely unhelpful” to their polar bear conservation agenda.

Said chairman Andrew Derocher in his email to Taylor:  “Time will tell who is correct.”

It’s now clear that Mitch Taylor was right to be skeptical of sea ice models based on pessimistic climate change assumptions; he was also right to be more optimistic than his PBSG colleagues about the ability of polar bears to adapt to changing sea ice conditions (Taylor and Dowsley 2008), since the bears have turned out to be more resilient than even he expected.

Fat mother and cubs_Southern Beaufort April 2016_USGS

Fat polar bears — not starving ones — dominate photos taken in recent years. The total failure of polar bear numbers to crash as predicted in response to the abrupt decline in summer sea ice in 2007 and persistent low summer sea ice levels since then (Crockford 2017), is vindication for Mitch Taylor. It’s time someone said so.

More on the 2009 incident below.

Exile for non-believers_JoNova 2009 titleJo Nova wrote an excellent summary of the events back in 2009 and while I’ve written about it before (here and here), if you haven’t read those or don’t know the story, it’s worth a look now.

From Nova’s essay, here’s the text of the original email from then-chairman Andrew Derocher to Taylor explaining why he was not invited to the 2009 Polar Bear Specialist Group meeting in Copenhagen (my bold):

Hi Mitch,

The world is a political place and for polar bears, more so now than ever before. I have no problem with dissenting views as long as they are supportable by logic, scientific reasoning, and the literature.

I do believe, as do many PBSG members, that for the sake of polar bear conservation, views that run counter to human induced climate change are extremely unhelpful. In this vein, your positions and statements in the Manhattan Declaration, the Frontier Institute, and the Science and Public Policy Institute are inconsistent with positions taken by the PBSG.

I too was not surprised by the members not endorsing an invitation.

Nothing I heard had to do with your science on harvesting or your research on polar bears – it was the positions you’ve taken on global warming that brought opposition.

Time will tell who is correct but the scientific literature is not on the side of those arguing against human induced climate change.

I look forward to having someone else chair the PBSG.

Best regards,

Andy (Derocher)

Read the rest here (pdf here).

Other takes on the issue here, here, and here.

News reports at the time, from the CBC, here and here.

Final note: Dr. Taylor still teaches at Lakehead University, is still active in polar bear research and still writes professional papers on that research (e.g. Anderson et al., 2016; York et al. 2016). This summer he was in the field doing polar bear research until late September.

After Taylor’s controversial expulsion in 2009, the PBSG had a meeting in 2012 to formally modify its mandate and rules of membership to include the following changes (pdf here):

  1. Raise the total number of possible members to 35 from 25.
    1. Remove the requirement that members be active in research:
        1. “The PBSG Chair appoints members on the basis of their direct and relevant scientific knowledge.” This allowed retired specialists like

      Ian Stirling to remain members.

  2. Clarified it’s position regarding members with views that run contrary to others in the group:
      1. “It should not be assumed that continued appointment is automatic. For example, members that no longer support the mission and objectives of the PBSG, or those that have been inactive, may not have their membership renewed.”

Finally, in 2013, for the first time, the PBSG appointed two people employed full time by activist organizations as member-delegates with full voting rights (Geoff York, of the World Wildlife Fund, now at Polar Bears International, and Steven Amstrup, of Polar Bears International), pdf here.

References

Anderson, M., Dyck, M. and Taylor, M. 2016. Estimating the abundance of the Gulf of Boothia polar bear sub-population by genetic mark-recapture: 2016 field report. Nunavut Department of Environment, Wildlife Research Section, Status Report 2016-04, Igloolik, NU. 28 pp. [pdf here]

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/

Taylor, M. and Dowsley, M. 2008. Demographic and Ecological Perspectives
on the Status of Polar Bears. Science and Public Policy Institute Original Papers. http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/science-papers/originals/demographic-and-ecological-polar-bear-perspectives [pdf here]

York, J., Dowsley, M., Cornwell, A., Kuc, M. and Taylor, M. 2016. Demographic and traditional knowledge perspectives on the current status of Canadian polar bear subpopulations. Ecology and Evolution 6(9):2897-2924. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2030

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