Frustration with criticism over the fate of polar bears decades into the future has plagued consensus experts since they first brought their concerns to the attention of conservation organizations in the mid-2000s. But now that catastrophe has not materialized, these researchers have shifted their defensive style from logical reasoning to relentless insult.
A decade ago, doubts about the veracity of the proposed ESA conservation status of “threatened” with extinction due to predicted effect of global warming came primarily through the media, who were seen to give critics a platform.
In a revealing article published 10 years ago in the fall of 2007 (before the ESA decision had been made) by polar bear biologists Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher (“Melting Under Pressure: The real scoop on climate warming and polar bears”) in The Wildlife Professional, some of the same concerns were being raised as in 2017 by Harvey and colleagues (that including Stirling and fellow polar bear biologist Steven Amstrup) in BioScience (“Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy”), but the approach and the language is startlingly different.
Stirling and Derocher 2007
Here’s a quote from the beginning of Melting Under Pressure (my bold):
“…contrarian articles continue to appear in the popular press, questioning climate warming in general and, more specifically, denying the potential negative effects on polar bears. Such articles generally exhibit a poor understanding of polar bear ecology and selectively use information out of context, which results in public confusion about the real threat to polar bears due to loss of sea ice.”
After a few pages of presenting evidence to support their position, Stirling and Derocher conclude (my bold):
“Against this extensive backdrop of long-term studies that document the negative effects of continued climate warming on sea ice and polar bears, and projections by the IPCC that those trends will continue, the press continues to cite minority contrarian opinions as if they have equal credibility.
In the long term, the loss of an iconic species such as the polar bear is but a symbol of much larger and hugely significant changes that will occur in many ecosystems throughout the world if the climate continues to warm and especially if, as projected by the IPCC, such warming is largely a consequence of excess anthropogenic productivity of greenhouse gases. For polar bears, habitat loss is the most critical single concern.
The symptoms of climate warming on polar bears are becoming clearer. Highly specialized species are particularly vulnerable to extinction if their environment changes, and polar bears fit that prescription. If the population of the planet is truly concerned about the fate of this species, we need to collectively reduce greenhouse gas production significantly and quickly.“
The Wildlife Professional is a journal only available to members of The Wildlife Society, a free membership benefit published six times a year. BioScience (which published Harvey et al. 2017)is a monthly journal that’s provided free to members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences but non-members can purchase individual articles and some libraries hold subscriptions. A few articles, like the Harvey et al. paper, are open-access and available to everyone online. Interesting parallels, to be sure. Both claim to be peer-reviewed.
Back in 2007, polar bear researchers Stirling and Derocher had little in the way of data to bolster their case but they used what they had: they addressed as best they could the criticisms to which they objected. Section titles of their paper were: Assessing the Facts; Signs of Decline; Media Mix-ups; Dire Reality. “Contrarians” used sparingly in the text (twice) to describe the opposition view; “confuse/confusion” used twice; “denying’ used once. Two authors, both experienced polar bear researchers (one the student of the other), a numbr of references cited but not listed in the document.
Harvey et al. 2017
Fast-forward to 2017 and the impossible-to-ignore fact that polar bear numbers have not declined as predicted due to mid-century-like sea ice levels. The desperation of the consensus polar bear experts comes across in their paper (Harvey et al. 2017) like a slap in the face. Contrast the 2007 Melting Under Pressure outline shown above to the section headings for Harvey et al. (2017): Climate-change denial and the Internet; Climate-change denial by proxy: Using hot topics as “keystone dominoes”; Arctic ice extent and polar bears are proxies for AGW denial; Science-based and -denier blogs take completely different positions on Arctic ice extent and polar bear status; Overcoming reticence: Scientists as advocates in countering AGW denial.
Denial, denial, denial, denier, denial — five times in the Harvey et al. section headings, plus once in the title. “Denier/deniers” 20 times in the text; “denial” four times in the text (not counting section headings or title); “deny/denying” nine times in the text, three in the abstract alone; “confusion” used once; “contrarian” used only as a key word. Fourteen authors, only two of which are experienced polar bear researchers; a lot of derogatory language but little discussion of evidence to counter actual criticisms that have been made about the science.
After pages of description of how Crockford and other bloggers must be wrong because they don’t say the same things about polar bears, sea ice, and global warming as people who disagree with them, Harvey et al. conclude (my bold):
“Finally, we feel that many scientists mistakenly believe that debates with deniers over the causes and consequences of climate change are purely science driven when in reality the situation with deniers is probably more akin to a street fight (Nature Editors 2010) based on those deniers’ political or economic agendas (Oreskes and Conway 2011, Farrell 2016a, 2016b)—something that urgently needs to be recognized.
We believe that it is imperative for more scientists to venture beyond the confines of their labs and lecture halls to directly engage with the public and policymakers, as well as more strongly confronting and resisting the well-funded and organized network of AGW denial. This can be done in numerous ways. For example, scientists can be more proactive in approaching the media to emphasize the importance of research findings or to counter misinterpretations.
They can also begin to encourage initiatives that empower citizen participation in scientific research, such as citizen science, as is being done currently at several major universities and research institutes. Moreover, scientists need to more effectively use Internet-based social media to their full advantage in order to turn the tide in the battle for public opinion. In this vein, the prominence and importance of blogs such as Real Climate show how climate scientists can successfully enter the blogosphere. Expanding this to include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sources may help to close the consensus gap, and we urgently encourage such efforts.”
Harvey et al.’s concluding recommendation seems to be directed at climate scientists in general and not polar bear experts in particular. However, since I began blogging in 2012, consensus polar bear experts have been virtual masters at getting media attention. They are the keepers of the great global warming icon, after all — all it takes is a phone call or an email to a journalist with an idea or a gripe about something, even when it’s not accompanied by a press release, and a polar bear story hits the papers.
For example, last spring Andrew Derocher had no trouble getting air time virtually immediately to dispute what I’d said on CBC radio in Newfoundland about the unusual number of polar bear sightings. The next day (maybe the day after) he was on — he didn’t make a very good case, in my opinion, but he had his say.
Harvey et al. conclude polar bear issues that I raise on this blog and in my published papers and videos are not about science but “a battle for public opinion.” Stirling and Amstrup are co-authors so I assume they accept this conclusion.
I am quite convinced they are wrong, as wrong as they can be. The public do care that science gets things right. There is no social media fix for the fact that 17,000 or so polar bears did not die as predicted by the models Amstrup and Stirling created to get polar bears listed as ‘threatened’ with extinction in 2008.
The summer sea ice dropped precipitously in 2007 to levels not predicted to occur until 2050 or so yet global polar bear numbers did not decline precipitously in concert, as the experts predicted — in fact, polar bear numbers did not decline at all (Amstrup et al. 2007; Crockford 2017; Crockford and Geist 2017; Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015).
In 2007, Amstrup and Stirling made a prediction about polar bear response to sea ice decline and they got it wrong. They have not only refused to admit their mistake, they have now consorted with bullies to denigrate all who point out their error (Harvey et al. 2017). Harvey et al. is sloppy and lacks scientific rigor probably because the “science” part of it wasn’t important to the authors — it was the incessant belittling message of the paper that mattered (and the media attention they were able to generate). The intent of the paper is to silence any criticism of their science, valid or not.
I can admire the resolve of Stirling and Derocher for writing their 2007 paper — at that point, they still thought they were right and made their case in a scientific and professional manner. Even when they were riled enough to write a paper of complaint, they wrote a professional essay using mostly respectful language.
In contrast, when Amstrup and Stirling teamed up with co-authors from outside their field in 2017 to help defend their failed model, it resulted in a nasty and disrespectful paper with language that was out of character for the polar bear science community. The sloppy attempt at scientific analysis just made the paper worse.
Sadly, there will be no social media fix for Amstrup and Stirling’s contribution to a paper that reflects so badly on the consensus polar bear science community.
Amstrup, S.C.,Marcot, B.G. and Douglas,D.C. 2007. Forecasting the rangewide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. Administrative Report, US Geological Survey. Reston, Virginia. 8.8 MB pdf here [may no longer be available online]
Crockford, S.J. and Geist, V. 2018. Conservation Fiasco. Range Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pg. 26-27. 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 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3
Harvey, J.A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T.W., Roessingh, P., Verheggen, B., Nuijten, R. J. M., Post, E., Lewandowsky, S., Stirling, I., Balgopal, M., Amstrup, S.C., and Mann, M.E. 2017. Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. Bioscience. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix133 pdf here. Supplementary info here.
Regehr, E.V., Laidre, K.L, Akçakaya, H.R., Amstrup, S.C., Atwood, T.C., Lunn, N.J., Obbard, M., Stern, H., Thiemann, G.W., & Wiig, Ø. 2016. Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology Letters 12: 20160556. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/12/20160556
Stirling, I. and Derocher, A.E. 2007. Melting Under Pressure The Wildlife Professional, Fall: 24-27, 43. pdf here.
Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., et al. 2015. Ursus maritimus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22823A14871490. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22823/0