Guest essay by Jim Steele
Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University and author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism
What oddly seems to surprise so many people, reality can quickly disagree with the hypotheses and speculative models of scientists. The polar bear is a rich case in point. In 2008, the polar bear was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as a result of the Center for Biological Diversity’s (CBD) petition. Due to hypotheses regards future effects of increasing CO2 on sea ice and polar bear health, CBD argued polar bears were endangered. However then Interior Secretary Kempthorne made it clear that “the ESA will not be used as a tool for trying to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for creating climate change.” But as seen in other memos and petitions, such as for the bearded seals, the CBD ultimately wants to use the ESA as a tool to regulate CO2.
So the CBD stepped up their demands and petitioned the Obama administration to list the bears as endangered. Climate scientists Ken Caldeira and Michael Mann co-authored a 2010 letter to Interior Secretary Salazar supporting CBD efforts. They warned “sea ice has been projected to disappear in the 2030s or before” and lost sea ice was both a future and “current threat to this important habitat of the polar bear.” The Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) led by researchers like Andrew Derocher, Steve Amstrup and Ian Stirling warned the world that “two thirds of the world’s bears will be lost by mid-century due to climate change”. The PBSG published a status table for all the polar bear sub-populations showing in the best studied populations, 8 were declining.
However, since 2010 those predictions have been unravelling. All the evidence now reveals polar bears are thriving and increasing, and the PBSG’s recent status tables show just that. Research by Chambellant and Stirling determined it was heavy springtime ice that was most detrimental to bears and their main prey, the ringed seal. The loss of Arctic summer sea ice was happening faster than CO2 driven models had predicted, suggesting flawed models. Research revealed that in response to the natural Arctic Oscillation, thick sea ice had been blown into the warmer Atlantic due to a directional shift in freezing winds. Further loss of Arctic sea ice has recently been shown to be caused by cycles of intruding waters from the Pacific and the Atlantic resulting in heat in that gets stored in the subsurface of the Arctic Ocean, dynamics that have not been accurately incorporated into global climate models. Accordingly, the loss of sea ice has not accelerated. Instead the loss has slowed considerably.
Skeptics argued such evidence challenges prevailing hypotheses about the polar bears’ demise, and question the contention that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of sea ice fluctuations. Driven by the hubris of scientists like Michael Mann whose careers are totally invested in the “dire predictions” of rising CO2, the normal scientific process of challenging a hypothesis was framed as an “attack on science”.
Again in 2010, in the paper Climate Change and the Integrity of Science Peter Gleick wrote, “We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. Accompanying his paper (below) was a photo-shopped picture of a polar bear stranded on a shrinking piece of ice. A deception that skeptics quickly pointed out.
So the following correction was placed in the paper’s online version.
“Due to an editorial error, the original image associated with this Letter was not a photograph, but a collage. The image was selected by the editors [of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science], and it was a mistake to have used it. The original image has been replaced in the online HTML and PDF versions of the article with an unaltered photograph from National Geographic.”
That replacement picture (below) was from National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklin, who would become infamous for specializing in dead and skinny polar bear photos. If Gleick or his editors were pulling photos from an archive (National Geographic?) of photographs, then the question arises if the fake collage was also the work of the same photographer. And if so, for what purpose were they creating such a dishonest photo? The timing of the article and fake photo also raised suspicions from skeptics as it coincided with the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaign to up-list the polar bear from threatened to endangered,
Despite having “carelessly” used a fake photo, Gleick was anointed the Chairman of the new task force on “scientific ethics and integrity” for the American Geophysical Union in 2011. Leading by example, in 2012 Gleick was outed in a flagrant attempt to anonymously smear the Heartland Institute’s climate skepticism by disseminating documents dishonestly obtained, including a damning but forged memo. Quickly identified by internet skeptics, Gleick finally confessed. Although the forged document was only being disseminated by Gleick, he denied any hand in forgery, and there was not enough evidence to convict him of forgery. In a KQED interview, Michael Mann, likely motivated by self-protection, downplayed Gleick’s underhanded actions as “poor judgement”. Mann then argued the release of the climate-gate emails, emails that had exposed Mann’s own underhanded methods, was a more dastardly deed. To this day, it is still unknown if the release of climate gate emails were the work of a whistle-blower or a hacker.
However, consistent with Mann’s efforts to promote polar bears as an icon of catastrophic global warming, Mann expressed no concern about Gleick’s fake polar bear picture. Indeed Mann was actively trying to pull on heart strings by mewing in the CBD release, “When I ventured up to Hudson Bay in mid-November and saw the undernourished polar bears with their cubs, sitting around at the shore of the Hudson Bay, waiting for the then month-overdue sea ice to arrive so they could begin hunting for food, it suddenly came home for me. For the first time in my life, I actually saw climate change unfolding before my eyes. It was a sobering moment, and one I’ll never forget.” In contrast to such storytelling, the unpublished research data from Stirling and Lunn, determined polar bear’s Body Condition Index for Hudson Bay bears had been improving since 1998 (in Landscapes and Cycles, p. 217). Improving body condition was also consistent with the increasing number of Hudson Bay bears estimated in subsequent surveys.
Susan Crockford runs the website polarbearscience.com, that aggregates the most up-to-date, peer-reviewed science and media releases by polar bear researchers. For example, Crockford reported the latest survey showing a healthy rebounding Western Hudson Bay population, months before the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) researchers publicized the increase. The PBSG had incorrectly predicted a dramatic decline in Hudson Bay bears, so their tardiness to expose their own shortcomings is understandable. Crockford also reported the lack of consensus among polar bear researchers. While Enviornment Canada agreeed with the latest survey that estimated a healthy 1030 Western Hudson Bay bears, PBSG alarmist Andrew Derocher was actively pushing a much lower estimate of 800 bears to the media and suggesting the bears were doomed. This too is understandable as Derocher was invested in his earlier predictions that “by the middle of this century, two-thirds of the polar bears will be gone from their current populations”
Nonetheless despite mutiple surveys suggesting polar bear abundance was and is increasing, others tried to deny the evidence and suggest bears were starving and still on the brink of extinction. In 2015, photos by Kerstin Langenberger and once again by Paul Nicklin were pumped on social media, suggesting bears were suffering from a climate catastrophe. Who were these photographers?
The dying bear above was put on Facebook by Kerstin Langenberger whom internet articles referred to as just a German photographer. But a little digging revealed she is a Greenpeace activist, which is consistent with her catastrophic narratives that accompanied her photo and contradicted our best science. She stated, “With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food,” and “many times I have seen horribly thin bears, and those were exclusively females – like this one here” and “Only once I have seen a bear getting a big fat ‘5,’ but several times I have seen dead bears and bears like this one: a mere ‘1’ on the scale, doomed to death.” [polar bears’ body condition is often rated from 1(dangerously thin) to 5 (fat)].
However contradicting Langenberger’s narrative, Norwegian Polar Institute researcher Kit Kovacs stated there’s reason to question claims that the number of animals experiencing such hardships is increasing. Our monitoring work indicates that (on-average) bears in the Svalbard population have NOT declined in condition over the last two decades – based on male body masses and fat levels”. Similarly, in the South Beaufort Sea population, female body condition had improved despite reduced summer ice.
Also in 2015, Nicklin posted his photo of a dead bear that went viral. Journalist Andrew Freedman promoted the picture in Mashable writing, “Global warming may have led to the death of this polar bear.” Presenting a thin veneer of objectivity, he quotes polar bear researcher Ian Stirling who suggested that Nicklen’s photo shows a bear that most likely, but not certainly, died as a result of starvation related to sea ice melt. But Stirling’s remarks must be taken with a grain of salt as there is absolutely no evidence to support why the bear died. Furthermore, Stirling has appeared slightly schizophrenic lately as has been detailed. For example despite his research showing cycles of heavy spring ice had been most detrimental to seals and bears, Stirling and Derocher’s review of polar bear “science” used the very same research to falsely imply that less summer ice was the problem.
In contrast to those 2015 photos, Crockford’s website was one of the few places where scientific reports of a healthy bear population could be found. Contradicting Langenberger and Nicklin’s story-telling of dead bears strewn across Svalbard due to climate change, Crockford posted links to actual researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute who reported fat bears in Svalbard.
Researchers were reporting
“The polar bears on Svalbard is round and full, thanks to a good [ice year] and good hunting opportunities.” And “… Polar bears were fat, many looked like pigs”, says polar researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, Jon Aars to the High North News. Furthermore the Svalbard bears are part of the Barent Sea population and in 2017 Crockford relayed the most recent survey data showing Barent Sea Bears have been increasing. But such facts don’t have the emotional appeal as Nicklin’s fanciful pictorial story telling.
The Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) had created a status table in 2009 to illustrate the trends of each polar bear population. Above is their 2010 version. The trends are boldly shown in red for declining and green for stable or increasing populations. Eight populations were believed to be declining of which 6 were considered very likely to decline further. Only 3 populations were considered stable and only 1 was increasing. These declining PBSG estimates also went viral, and websites such as the one run by psychologist John Cook, who is now part of the well-funded Center for Climate Change Communication, posted an article concluding, “Current analysis of subpopulations where data is sufficient clearly shows that those subpopulations are mainly in decline” and thus support the ESA listing of polar bears as threatened. In contrast in Landscapes and Cycles I documented how bear populations since 2010 were definitely increasing based on latest research.That analyses has been confirmed while earlier PBSG hype of declining populations and speculation of coming extirpations have not survived the test of time.
Fortunately Susan Crockford’s Polar Bear Science blog has continuoulsy discussed population trends as reported by bear experts plus PBSG’s status updates. While the PBSG removes their old tables, Crockford’s website serves as an archive that allows the public to readily witness how the bears have been increasing. For example the 2014 table (below) revealed the good news that only 3 of the past 8 populations were still declining, one was still increasing, and the stable populatons had doubled to 6.
Oddly in 2017 the PBSG eliminated the trends from their population table. The most likely reason for this omission would be that none of the bear populations are currently declining. Every population would be green or data deficient. Despite rising CO2 and reduced summer sea ice, polar bears are doing quite well and that contradicted the their predictions.
Of the 3 previously declining populations listed in their 2014 status report, the Baffin Bay population has now increased from 1,546 in 2004 to 2,826 in the most recent survey. The Kane Basin bears, that suffer from heavy ice, were estimated at 167 in 1997 but rose to 357 in 2014. The South Beaufort Sea population estimation remained unchanged but this population has been heavily criticized for poor analyses of mark and recatpure data.
In the face of rapid increases in the Baffin Bay bear population, a social media splash of Nicklin’s starving bear on Baffin Island appears to be another orchestrated attempt to resuscitate the failing claim that climate change is killing bears. National Geographic who sponsored Nicklin reports by “telling the story of one polar bear, Nicklen hopes to convey a larger message about how a warming climate has deadly consequences.” The NY Times pushed the video with similar headlines: Video of Starving Polar Bear ‘Rips Your Heart Out of Your Chest’. The Washington Post hyped the bear as evidence of an environmental disaster with the headlines, ‘We stood there crying’: Emaciated polar bear seen in ‘gut-wrenching’ video and photos. If you searched the internet for an objective scientific examination, oddly no matter how many variations of “starving polar bears” are queried Google’s first link brings up the WWF’s plea for money to save the bears, and perhaps a violation of net neutrality.
Snopes who advertises itself as a fact-checker of truth, rated Nicklin’s starving bear video as “TRUE”. But Snopes’ bias is revealed by its discussion on the photo’s relevance, which pushes catastrophic climate change speculation. Snopes quotes polar bear researcher Steve Amstrup, who’s has flipped flopped on several bear issues over his career and whose “expertise model” has been severely criticized by colleagues in released emails. Amstrup promotes the starving bear photo on his website, again with the obligatory thin veneer of objectivity stating, “we cannot say, from the footage captured here, that this bear’s malnutrition was caused by global warming and its associated sea ice loss”. He then launches his speculative catastrophic message, “The problem is that an ever-warmer future means polar bears will have less and less access to their seal prey, so the rate at which bears die from malnutrition/starvation will increase. So, regardless of the proximate cause of this bear’s condition, this heart-wrenching footage provides us with a warning about the future.” Yet not a word about the survey of Baffin Bay bears robustly increasing from 1,546 in 2004 to 2,826 today.
Amstrup and Mann are facing an embarrassing professional dilemma. With all the polar bear populations increasing or stable, their predictions that two-thirds of the polar bears will be gone by the middle of this century appears destined for utter failure. They had to do something. Otherwise who would trust a doctor whose past diagnoses were absolutely wrong. So, Harvey, Stirling, Amstrup, Mann and a professor of psychobabble Stephan Lewandowsky, banded together as coauthors of the paper Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy that fortuitously gets publicized alongside NIcklin’s starving bear hype.
Their paper acknowledges observations that polar bears have yet to be harmed writing, “Although the effects of warming on some polar-bear subpopulations are not yet documented and other subpopulations are apparently still faring well.” But they then confuse speculation with proven facts by suggesting “the fundamental relationship between polar-bear welfare and sea-ice availability is well established.” Clearly the growing bear populations present an undeniable challenge to any belief in the “requirement” of summer ice.
Their paper argued, “a growing body of scientific research reports the wide array of negative effects of AGW on biodiversity” by citing Parmesan whose bogus claims about the negative effects of climate change on wildlife are well documented. Harvey, Stirling, Amstrup and Mann confuse speculative hypotheses with “fundamental relationship”. Published observations have shown heavy springtime ice is more harmful for seals and bears. Observations by Arrigo determined that reduced ice, whether natural or anthropogenic, has increased phytoplankton productivity and bolstered the Arctic food web, while fishery researchers find that less ice and warmer temperatures increase Arctic cod abundance that is required to sustain the seals that sustain the bears.
Because skeptic websites like Crockford’s polarbearscience.com, Anthony Watts’ WUWT, and many others are the best source for alternative explanations that challenge catastrophic hypotheses, they are denigrated by these supposed objective scientists. As mounting evidence continues to turn against their prior polar bear predictions Harvey, Stirling, Amstrup, Mann and Lewandowsky’s were running low on scientific ammunition. So now they chose to publish a paper, solely aimed at shooting the messengers. They offered no scientific facts about polar bears that contradicted anything Crockford had published. Their arguments were based solely on the fallacy of authority, authorities whose predictions are failing. Their paper is nothing more than a smear campaign hoping to suppress the upwelling call for more debate. Such tactics, tactics that try to obscure any evidence that challenges a failing hypothesis, are the real attacks on the scientific process. That is why Mann has been labeled by some as a disgrace to the profession. And whether or not Nicklin’s latest wretched polar bear photo is part of an orchestrated attempt to resuscitate their failed predictions, the media hype reveals that such photos, taken out of context, are worth a thousand lies.
Jim Steele is author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism