Polar Bears International is the non-profit organization that virtually rules the town of Churchill when it comes to informing naïve tourists about polar bears. A million-dollar donation last year guaranteed the creation of a new building to permanently display PBI-generated information in downtown Churchill – previously limited to those visitors wealthy or influential enough to ride Tundra Buggies run by Frontiers North.
PBI is an organization dedicated to the promotion of climate change rhetoric that currently purports to present unbiased scientific information about polar bears and climate change. It was founded by a retired marketing director and “polar bear enthusiast” in 2002 but its current leader is ‘chief scientist’ Steven Amstrup. Amstrup was almost single-handedly responsible for the failed survival model that got polar bears classified as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the US (Crockford 2017, Crockford 2019; Crockford and Geist 2018).
Amstrup’s model predicted that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would be gone if sea ice got as low as it has been since 2007 but it was spectacularly wrong: polar bears are healthier and more numerous than 50 years ago.
Amstrup presented his firmly-held opinions as if they were scientific facts but observations have shown his guesses were incorrect. But he refuses to acknowledge this and PBI continues to spead a message of impending doom [my bold]:
“This year’s polar bear season is going to be big for our team, perhaps our biggest yet. Not only do we have an amazing schedule of Tundra Connections webcasts and live chats, but we’re also working with an array of media to tell stories and spread awareness about polar bears and the threats they face in a warming Arctic. This is especially important following another summer of massive sea ice loss in the Arctic and amidst overwhelming global momentum pressuring world leaders to address the climate crisis.”
Below is an excerpt from an interesting story from 2010 on how PBI controls the ‘polar-bears-are-doomed/save-our-sea-ice‘ narrative presented to the media and innocent tourists who just come to see polar bears in the wild.
This story, published in The Atlantic in 2013, involves a long-planned visit to Churchill in 2010 from television personality Martha Stewart to highlight the plight of polar bears and climate change aboard a Frontiers North Tundra Buggy. At that time, Stewart hosted a daytime TV show on the Hallmark Channel and marketer Robert Buchanan led the PBI team that was intent on controlling the ‘polar-bears-are-doomed’ narrative. It is an enlightening read [my bold].
“Polar Bears International had been working in a loose partnership with Martha Stewart for many months in advance to handle logistics for her shoot. The group was trying to ensure that Martha told the right story about the animals. It isn’t enough anymore to gush about how magnificent or cute polar bears are, as the many travel writers and television personalities that came to Churchill over the years had tended to. The stakes were too high now–too urgent.
The polar bear, in other words, is an early indicator of all this other turmoil coming our way. It is, as everyone on Buggy 1 [which PBI staff use as headquarters] kept telling me, a “canary in the coal mine”–that was the phrase they used, always, with unrelenting discipline. The animal had become a symbol for some otherwise inexpressible pang–of guilt, of panic–that can burble into the back of your mind, or the pit of your stomach, when you think about the future of life on Earth. But, Polar Bears International was arguing, it could also be a mascot–a rallying point and call to action. …
Practically speaking, this leaves conservationists like Polar Bears International in a unique and sometimes disorienting position. Unlike with other species, the central threat to polar bears isn’t something that can be tackled or solved on the ground, out in the immediate ecosystem. The only meaningful way to save the polar bear now is to influence the energy policies and behavior of people who live thousands of miles away–which means, in part, influencing influential media personalities like Martha Stewart. At some point, polar bear conservation stopped being solely the work of biologists and wildlife managers and became the work of lawyers, lobbyists, and celebrities as well. The bear is dependent on the stories we tell about it.
After spending the fall in Churchill, Polar Bears International’s president, Robert Buchanan, would head back home to the United States and start traveling from city to city, hosting talks by scientists and zookeepers, trying to use the appeal of this one charismatic animal to inspire people to reduce their own carbon footprints, however slightly–to drive less, to buy recycled goods. In Kansas City, PBI had partnered with the hardware chain Lowe’s to get inner-city kids to weatherize their neighbors’ homes, saving energy for heating and cooling. In suburban Connecticut, they’d cosponsored “Polar Bear Empathy Day,” at which members of the local Polar Bear Club, in a reversal of their traditional cold-water swims, put on heavy parkas and stood on a scorching beach in July to show solidarity with the bears in an overheating Arctic. All together, Robert regarded these strategies and stunts as a kind of psychological guerrilla warfare. “Polar bears are in serious friggin’ trouble,” he told me that morning on Buggy 1. “But until you change the consumer’s attitude, you’re not going to change the policy or the political will.” By “consumer,” he presumably meant “citizen.” …
Robert was literally trying to control the image of the polar bear in Churchill before that image was broadcast around the world. Churchill turns out to be the best, most convenient place in the world to see or film polar bears in the wild. (When you see a wild polar bear on TV or the Internet, the chances are good that you’re looking at a Churchill bear.) Because Polar Bears International operates in close partnership with a tour company in Churchill that owns the majority of the permits and vehicles needed to access the animals on the tundra, the group has been able to intercept most of the major media that come through town. They install biologists and climatologists on the reporters’ buggies like scientific press agents, trying to make sure an accurate narrative comes across, and they provide B-roll footage of bears plunging into melting slush to help newscasters illustrate the problem.
In past years, though, PBI had gone out of its way to help television crews only to feel betrayed by the finished product: the reporters ignore climate change altogether, or regurgitate the junk theories of climate change deniers. Most television crews are now asked to sign memorandums of understanding, outlining certain guidelines, before working with PBI. (As a rule, one PBI staffer told me, Robert regards all journalists as “pirates and thieves.”)“
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/
Crockford, S.J. and Geist, V. 2018. Conservation Fiasco. Range Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pg. 26-27. Pdf here.