Stop lying to children about dying polar bears as a way to achieve action on climate change

The heartbreaking story of dying polar bears, told for more than a decade now, was meant to get kids on board the global warming action train. It worked a treat – except that it was never true. The lie gave sensitive children nightmares and turned others into political activists full of groundless outrage who now pointlessly rant in the streets.

BBC video screencap with Thunberg video quoting starving pb images_23 April 2019

As the established icon of climate change and Arctic habitats, polar bears have been given centre stage in the climate change narrative presented to young children and their teachers. But the distressing tale of polar bears on the brink of extinction – dying for our fossil fuel sins – was never true, as I show in point form below. Polar bear lies form the foundation of the baseless political activism of Greta Thunberg that other youngsters have since emulated.

Here are some of the false ‘facts’ children have been taught:

  1. Polar bears are an endangered species and only a few hundred still exist
  2. Polar bears numbers are declining
  3. Polar bears now spend months on land because of climate change
  4. There is not enough sea ice for polar bears: no sea ice, no polar bears
  5. A bear falling through thin ice will drown & become a victim of climate change
  6. Any skinny polar bear is a victim of climate change


Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg, shown above, told party leaders in the UK House of Commons that she had been shown pictures of starving polar bears in school (BBC, 23 April 2019); she had previously told Guardian reporter Jonathan Watts how upsetting those images were for her (my bold):

“I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies. My classmates were concerned when they watched the film, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that. Those pictures were stuck in my head.”

This shameful abuse of trust continues to this day. For example, in a photo included in a recent tweet posted by proud father David Rudolf on behalf of his middle-school aged daughter, it’s clear she has been wrongly informed by her teachers that polar bears are one of several endangered species1:

David Rudolf daugher taught falsehoods about species extinction_26 April 2019

I know for a fact that here in Canada the experience of children has been very similar. In the 2016/2017 school year, I visited local schools to talk to middle-school aged students about the ability of polar bears to survive climate change. Every single one of their teachers – more than a dozen in total – thought there were only a few hundred polar bears left in the world and were astonished to learn the official estimate was 26,0002.

Most middle-school teachers have been ‘educated’ about polar bears by people with a strong agenda like Al Gore, organizations with a mission like National Geographic, Polar Bears International and WWF, and by trusted community facilities like zoos and museums. Organizations promote ‘educational’ material that encourage teachers and kids to believe that polar bears are suffering because of climate change and that ‘action’ of some kind (including donations) will prevent this3.

Examples: National Geographic Kids; Polar Bears International for teachers 2013; WWF Education Toolkit; National Wildlife Federation 2012;

Even though some organizations have come to realize that thriving polar bears are a problem for their own agenda, they still push the ‘poor polar bear’ meme at every opportunity. Organizations like National Geographic continue to promote the discredited video of an emaciated polar bear because it serves the immediate purpose of increasing their coffers. A recent study showed this effect clearly (Swim and Bloodhart 2015):

“…portrayals of polar bears harmed by climate change motivated both environmentalists and non-environmentalists to donate money to environmental activist groups.”

Children have been frightened with images of drowning and starving polar bears for so long now that an entire generation of vulnerable teens and young adults only know how predictions of future climate change disaster make them feel. These naive young people cannot think critically about these issues: they simply parrot the memes that match the anxiety instilled in them as kids – which all started with the polar bear lies.

Polar bear specialists, conservation activists, and the media are to blame for this situation: they continue to promote the idea that polar bears are on the brink of extinction despite strong evidence to the contrary (Crockford 2019).

Psychoanalyst Rosemary Randall, commenting on this phenomenon back in 2011, may have hit the nail on the head when she suggested that these adults are projecting their own powerlessness when they encourage kids to ‘act’ on climate change (my bold):

Climate change makes most adults working on it feel powerless. We compare the actions we are capable of with the scale of the problem and feel weak. We look at the extent of our influence and feel helpless. We struggle to combat our contrary desires to consume and feel shame. We feel like children. Children – who are actually socially and politically powerless – are an ideal receptacle for the projection of these uncomfortable and unacceptable feelings.

By focusing on the weakest members of society and influencing them, the not-very-powerful adults make themselves feel better at the expense of the absolutely-not-powerful children. By making them act, we prove that we are not as powerless as we feel.”

False Facts About Polar Bears

  1. Polar bears are an endangered species and only a few hundred still exist
  2. Polar bear numbers are declining
  3. Polar bears now spend months on land because of climate change
  4. There is not enough sea ice for polar bears: no sea ice, no polar bears
  5. A bear falling through thin ice will drown & become a victim of climate change
  6. Any skinny polar bear is a victim of climate change

1. Being on the US Endangered Species List does not mean polar bears are considered endangered: this is a misunderstanding. Polar bears are listed as ‘threatened’ or ‘vulnerable’, which are much lower risk categories than ‘endangered’. Virtually all ‘endangered’ species have only a few hundred animals remaining but ‘threatened’ species have many, many more. In addition, the polar bear’s ‘threatened’ status refers to what might happen in the future, not what is happening right now (Crockford 2019). The polar bear conservation status is a special case that has left many teachers and students confused, and media hyperbole (as shown below) isn’t helping.

CBC News headline Sept 7 2007

2. Polar bear numbers are increasing, not declining, despite a 40% loss of summer sea ice since 1979. As I explain in my new book, The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened, polar bears were the first species to be classified on the US Endangered Species List and the IUCN Red List (in 2006 and 2008, respectively) based on assumptions of how many bears might die by 2050 if summer sea ice declined as predicted rather than how many bears had been counted at the time (Amstrup et al. 2007). As it turned out, both the sea ice predictions and polar bear survival models were wrong (Crockford 2017; 2019). The dramatic decline in summer sea ice level that experts predicted for 2050 came decades sooner than expected (in 2007), which allowed researchers to observe exactly how polar bears would respond.

The results have been astonishing: while the computer models said only about 8,100 polar bears should remain after so many years of low summer sea ice, the official estimate in 2015 (26,000) was higher than it was in 2005 (24,500) and may be higher still (see graph below). In other words, polar bears are thriving: their numbers are going up even though sea ice has declined dramatically.

Population size estimate graph chapter 10

Global polar bear population size estimates to 2018. From Chapter 10 of The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened (Crockford 2019).

3. Polar bears in many areas have always come ashore for months during the summer, where they have little or nothing to eat. In fact, bears in Western Hudson Bay – one of the furthest south areas where polar bears live year round – came ashore for four long months in the 1970s (before global warming and sea ice decline became an issue). There was little or nothing for them to eat. Yet this was one of the healthiest and most prolific subpopulations in the Arctic at the time: most females gave birth to triplet litters (which were rare everywhere else) and then weaned their cubs at least a full year earlier than mothers did elsewhere (Derocher and Stirling 1992, 1995; Ramsay and Stirling 1988; Stirling and Lunn 1997). Since 1995, these bears have spent on average three weeks longer on shore than they did in the 1970s (almost 5 months): they are still thriving but litter size and weaning age are now more like polar bears elsewhere across the Arctic (Dyck et al. 2017; Stapleton et al. 2014; Stirling and Lunn 1997). Since there is no evidence that polar bears from Western Hudson Bay are biologically different from any others, it means well-fed polar bears across the Arctic will still thrive while spending almost five months onshore in the summer with little or no food to eat.

Female with cubs Beaufort_USFWS credit 2007 w label_sm

4. There is still plenty of sea ice available for polar bears during their critical feeding period in early spring (April/May) when young seals are abundant.  Ice declines in late spring have little impact on polar bear survival because the intensive feeding period ends by mid-June or earlier in most areas (Obbard et al. 2016). Most polar bears are at their fattest in late spring and can live off that fat during the summer months whether they are on land or on the sea ice.  In Svalbard, in the western Barents Sea, recent summer sea ice loss since 1979 has been the greatest across the entire Arctic yet polar bears are thriving (Aars 2018; Aars et al. 2017; Regehr et al. 2016): there is no sign of an impending extirpation event. The same is true for the Chukchi Sea (between Alaska and Russia, north of the Bering Sea)(Regehr et al. 2018; Rode et al. 2014, 2018). Summer sea ice is not necessary for polar bear survival.

Sea ice extent 2019 April average_NSIDC

5. Many kids have the mistaken idea that polar bears can’t swim! In fact, recent research shows that polar bears and their cubs are efficient long-distance swimmers (Durner et al. 2011; Lone et al. 2018; Pagano et al. 2012; Pilfold et al. 2016) and capable of diving to almost 14m in depth (Lone et al. 2018). While newborn cubs are vulnerable to exhaustion while swimming, they can ride on their mother’s shoulders. Polar bears having nothing to fear from falling through thin ice or taking long swims between ice floes.

FM pg 34

6. Lack of sea ice has never been shown to be the cause of polar bear starvation. Polar bears suffer from starvation for a large number of reasons (including lack of experience, competition with other bears, poor judgment, injury, illness, and too much ice in spring): before ‘not enough sea ice’ can be blamed for a case of starvation, all other causes must be ruled out (Crockford 2019).  See this previous post, with its many references, for a detailed discussion – as well as the video below.

Bottom line

Naive children and teens too immature for truly critical thought have endured years of lies about dying polar bears. All they have to do is feel to be part of a climate change protest: years of emotional manipulation focused on the plight of the poor polar bear has left them primed for pointless picketing.

This is the final message that Polar Bears International gives to teachers in their “Polar bears in a warming world presentation (produced in 2013, downloaded by me last week):

“Unfortunately, there has so far been no serious action by any of the leading nations to reduce emissions. “So, sadly, I have to report that the outlook for polar bears and other cold-dependent species has only worsened in the time since we released our 2007 reports,” said Dr. Amstrup.”

Dr. Amstrup is the biologist who predicted, back in 2007 (Amstrup et al. 2007) that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would be gone when sea ice declined to 2050 levels. We now know he was wrong and polar bears are thriving (Crockford 2017, 2019). However, this presentation is still being promoted on the PBI website: Steven Amstrup, in 2019, is still pushing his failed narrative of impending polar bear extinction for teachers to take home to their young students. Is it any wonder kids are depressed and anxious about the future?

Footnotes

  1. As for giraffes being endangered because of climate change, that’s wrong too: “Human population growth poses the largest threat to giraffe in Africa today” And sloths? Out of 6 species that exist, only the pygmy three-toed sloth is critically endangered – due to human encroachment and poaching. The claim that the koala is an endangered species due to climate change is also wrong: in 2016 the IUCN listed the koala as ‘vulnerable’ – same as the polar bear – with “climate change & severe weather” listed as the last of many threats, the first of which is “residential and commercial development”.
  2. Additional counts completed since the 2015 assessment would raise that number to almost 30,000 and a plausible 2018 estimate that takes all new information into account suggests almost 40,000 bears (39,000-58,000) probably exist across the Arctic (Crockford 2017, 2019).
  3. Even the IUCN Red List has participated in spread misleading information: this announcement that the polar bear is not the only species people should worry about, Species on climate change hit list named, from 2009 (document here), is full of baseless predictions unsupported by facts.

References

Aars, J. 2018. Population changes in polar bears: protected, but quickly losing habitat. Fram Forum Newsletter 2018. Fram Centre, Tromso. Download pdf here (32 mb).

Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1. 1374125. doi:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G. & Douglas, D.C. 2007. Forecasting the rangewide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. US Geological Survey. Reston, VA. Pdf here

Crockford, S.J. 2019. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Derocher, A.E. and Stirling, I. 1992. The population dynamics of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. pg. 1150-1159 in D. R. McCullough and R. H. Barrett, eds. Wildlife 2001: Populations. Elsevier Sci. Publ., London, U.K.

Derocher, A.E. and Stirling, I. 1995. Temporal variation in reproduction and body mass of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73:1657-1665. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z95-197

Dyck, M., Campbell, M., Lee, D., Boulanger, J. and Hedman, D. 2017. 2016 Aerial survey of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation. Final report, Nunavut Department of Environment, Wildlife Research Section, Iglolik, NU. http://www.gov.nu.ca/environnement/information/wildlife-research-reports#polarbear

Lone, K., Kovacs, K.M., Lydersen, C., Fedak, M., Andersen, M., Lovell, P., and Aars, J. 2018. Aquatic behaviour of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in an increasingly ice-free Arctic. Scientific Reports 8:9677. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-27947-4.

Lunn, N.J., Servanty, S., Regehr, E.V., Converse, S.J., Richardson, E. and Stirling, I. 2016. Demography of an apex predator at the edge of its range – impacts of changing sea ice on polar bears in Hudson Bay. Ecological Applications, in press. DOI: 10.1890/15-1256

Obbard, M.E., Cattet, M.R.I., Howe, E.J., Middel, K.R., Newton, E.J., Kolenosky, G.B., Abraham, K.F. and Greenwood, C.J. 2016. Trends in body condition in polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation in relation to changes in sea ice. Arctic Science, in press. 10.1139/AS-2015-0027

Ramsay, M.A. and Stirling, I. 1988. Reproductive biology and ecology of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Zoology London 214:601-624. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1988.tb03762.x/abstract

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

Regehr, E.V., Hostetter, N.J., Wilson, R.R., Rode, K.D., St. Martin, M., Converse, S.J. 2018. Integrated population modeling provides the first empirical estimates of vital rates and abundance for polar bears in the Chukchi Sea. Scientific Reports 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-34824-7 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34824-7

Rode, K.D., Regehr, E.V., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2014. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Global Change Biology 20(1):76-88. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12339/abstract

Rode, K. D., R. R. Wilson, D. C. Douglas, V. Muhlenbruch, T.C. Atwood, E. V. Regehr, E.S. Richardson, N.W. Pilfold, A.E. Derocher, G.M Durner, I. Stirling, S.C. Amstrup, M. S. Martin, A.M. Pagano, and K. Simac. 2018. Spring fasting behavior in a marine apex predator provides an index of ecosystem productivity. Global Change Biology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13933/full

Stapleton S., Atkinson, S., Hedman, D., and Garshelis, D. 2014. Revisiting Western Hudson Bay: using aerial surveys to update polar bear abundance in a sentinel population. Biological Conservation 170: 38-47. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320713004618#

Stirling, I. and Lunn, N.J. 1997. Environmental fluctuations in arctic marine ecosystems as reflected by variability in reproduction of polar bears and ringed seals. In Ecology of Arctic Environments, Woodin, S.J. and Marquiss, M. (eds), pg. 167-181. Blackwell Science, UK.

Swim, J.K. and Bloodhart, B. 2014. Portraying the perils to polar bears:
the role of empathic and objective perspective-taking toward animals in
climate change communication. Environmental Communication 9 (4):446-468 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2014.987304

Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., Atwood, T., Laidre, K., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., et al. 2015. Ursus maritimus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22823A14871490. Available from http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22823/0 [accessed Nov. 28, 2015]. See the supplement for population figures.

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