by Judith Curry
Advocates and scientists have tied the Earth’s fate to that of the polar bear. But what happens if this lumbering giant proves more resilient than the rest of us? – Zac Unger
Zac Unger has written new book, Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows, to be published this February. Visit his website for more information. The central text on his website says:
Zac Unger set out to become a hero of the environmental movement. Easy, right? (and humble too . . .) But his quest to write a mournful elegy for the polar bear ran up against a giant Arctic spin room of shaky science, big egos, and a reality that is very much at odds with the marketing.
Unger has written an article on this in the Pacific Standard, entitled The Fuzzy Face of Climate Change. Its a lengthy article, with some fascinating information about the polar bears. I excerpt here a description of the interactions of Unger with the Heavy Hitter scientists-media stars-advocates and an intrepid skeptic (JC bold):
The past decade has been particularly difficult for polar bears. In 2004 alone, scientists saw 10 bears swimming in open water, several as far as 110 miles offshore. Even more alarming, scientists found four polar-bear carcasses floating in the sea; they had apparently drowned while attempting to swim from one ice floe to the next. Never before had scientists seen even a single drowned bear. On land, the scientists found that half the bears were lean or emaciated. In western Hudson Bay, near the town of Churchill, Manitoba, a 2007 study told a grim tale: in less than 20 years, the local bear population had plummeted from 1,194 to 935, a decline of more than 20 percent. Around the Arctic, the pattern was consistent, and scientists were building the case that polar bears were the first in a long series of future calamities attributable to global warming.
Steven Amstrup, who had written many of the papers detailing the bears’ precipitous decline, was beginning to understand the carnage; the polar bears were turning to cannibalism because they were starving to death.
Or at least that’s how it was reported.
I didn’t end up in polar bear country by accident. I went because I wanted to become a hero of the environmental movement.
My plan was to bring the apocalypse home by writing a mournful elegy for the polar bears, which would quickly establish me as the heir to Rachel Carson/John Muir/Edward Abbey. Easy.
I grew up near Berkeley. I compost my table scraps, and yet … after months of research and a whole lot of time spent being much too cold, I was having trouble writing the book I’d planned. Some scientists were telling me that the conventional wisdom was wrong, some were spinning way too hard to tell me it was right, and absolutely everyone was using the polar bear as the greatest marketing gimmick ever invented. Polar bears, for their part, weren’t dying off nearly as quickly as I needed them to in order to establish myself as the Oracle of Doom.
I wanted Amstrup badly. He wasn’t a musty academic, but a sort of Indiana Jones of the wildlife biology world. In his resumé he had stated flatly: “I am the senior polar bear specialist in the U.S. Federal Government.” He was based in Alaska but traveled the world, penning countless papers.
Amstrup wasn’t the only polar-bear scientist in the world, and I quickly learned that he was not alone in his desire to blow me off. Getting a polar-bear scientist to return your calls is as easy as convincing Mick Jagger to headline your Labor Day picnic. Two in particular—Amstrup and Stirling—formed a radioactive nucleus that I simply could not penetrate. Part of the problem was that there just weren’t many of these guys to choose from. They were deluged by media requests, savaged by skeptics, and put under the sort of public scrutiny that most ecologists never face. I started to refer to the group as the Heavy Hitters, a secretive cabal of ecological geniuses.
Finally, somebody asked if I’d talked to a population ecologist named Robert Rockwell who was based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Rockwell, much to my amazement, answered his office phone on the first ring. After a bit of back-and-forth, he invited me to join him at a remote research camp outside Churchill to see what was going on with polar bears. Just a few thousand dollars’ worth of airfare and helicopter charters later, there I was.
Rocky’s years of experience told him that the predictions the Heavy Hitters were making just didn’t add up. Not only was he seeing lots of bears, many of whom were in fine condition, but he’d also personally observed bears eating all sorts of different critters, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that suggested bears survive on seals alone.
Rocky’s arguments made sense in a vague and theoretical way—after all, some animals do have the ability to change their tactics when particular resources get scarce. Still, new genetic evidence suggested that polar bears were 500,000 years older than previously thought, meaning they’d survived warm cycles before.
“I just want to get this straight,” I said later as Rocky prepared dinner, a massive Arctic char with onions and potatoes. “Are you telling me that you don’t think global warming is a problem for the bears? Are you saying that what they lose in seals they can make up for by eating geese and caribou and plants?”
“I have no idea!,” Rocky exploded. “That’s just it! But we have to be willing to ask that question. Which is exactly what Stirling won’t do. We submitted a paper once about polar bears eating goose eggs, and when Stirling read it he went absolutely nuts, saying, ‘Why don’t they come ashore earlier if the eggs are so good?’ and ‘Eggs aren’t going to save the bears.’ Well, that wasn’t what we were saying. We were saying that it’s possible that bears may be able to derive some nutritional benefit from eating something other than seals. And Stirling couldn’t accept even that limited hypothesis.”
So this was Rocky’s grand theory, I thought: as the Arctic warmed and the sea ice shrank, the bears might somehow manage to adapt. Rocky’s ideas were engaging, and he was a good salesman, but I wasn’t entirely buying it.
“Take the 2050 thing, for example,” he said. “That’s just a huge problem.” Rocky was referring to a series of reports, sprawling over more than 400 pages, that Amstrup had written for the U.S. Geological Survey. One single factoid had been catnip to the press, reported and re-reported in every media outlet on Earth. One typical headline read “Scientists: Most Polar Bears Dead by 2050.” Rocky reiterated the ways in which he thought the Heavy Hitters had botched their methodology and made biased assumptions. I had no way of knowing whether Rocky was right, but I had faith in the scientific process to do the heavy lifting that I couldn’t do.
Surely some journal would weed out flimsy numbers and peer reviewers would reject shoddy work, right?
“That’s just it!,” Rocky thundered. “Those USGS papers aren’t science. They’re junk! And they should be thrown out.” Rocky felt that Amstrup and his colleagues had crossed the line from science to advocacy. “If this had been a bird or a fish, I guarantee you it would not have happened this quickly.”
And so what if Amstrup was becoming “an advocate,” as Rocky put it? It wasn’t like he was being secretive about it. Polar bears could use a good advocate.
Rocky went on: “A scientist’s first commitment needs to be to science, not to the end result. A single-minded scientist leads us to the Dr. Mengele problem.”
“Sure, but the opposite extreme is just as bad,” I said. “A scientist can’t throw up his hands and say, ‘I’m just splitting the atom here, and I don’t have any idea what the military might use it for.’” This was getting ridiculous. He’d gone Nazi and I’d gone nuclear, which is the universal sign that a conversation has come unhinged.
“And what happens if the bears in the Beaufort Sea are not extirpated by 2050?,” he continued. “And then what if something else goes wrong and some other species is more at risk? Will people listen to any of us then?”
Despite the prearranged news narrative, there was a plausible argument to be made that all was not lost. Sure, Rocky was in the minority, but he wasn’t a crackpot. And the gaps he’d shown in the armor of the Heavy Hitters were real.
Uncertainty existed, but you couldn’t discuss it in tasteful circles.
I’m an environmentalist at heart, but what I’d found in the Hudson Bay had gotten in the way of my well-laid plans. I needed to talk with the Heavy Hitters—I wanted to be reconvinced of what they had to say. I didn’t like admitting it, but since my time with Rocky, I’d become a bit of a skeptic: maybe the hype had outrun the reality. And so I found myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to believe the very worst. In that era of faith-based decision making and gag orders on scientists, my personal biases weren’t very deeply hidden. I wanted the Heavy Hitters to be calm, convincing, and right. I wanted to know that the situation was critical, that polar bears were on their way out.
And then, through the magic of bullshitting my way into the right place at the right time, I was granted a sudden audience with Steven Amstrup and Ian Stirling as they blew through Churchill on a media blitz.
I figured the best place to start was with what had led me—and everyone else—to the story in the first place: cannibalism. Amstrup’s paper had hit the world like a hammer. The idea that bears were so hungry that they were devouring each other was too horrifying to ignore.
I asked Amstrup whether he worried about the way the public ignored decades of research and focused on the one paper that had blood all over it.
“There’s no way that you could put your finger on it and say, ‘Well, that’s the fingerprint of climate change, or that’s caused by global warming.’ It happened that the sorts of observations that are reported in that paper were things we hadn’t seen before, and so they caught our attention. That doesn’t mean that they never happened before. It could have been that they happened out there and we just never observed it,” he continued, “ So it’s the kind of thing that’s consistent with what we might expect to see happening in the environment, but you can’t necessarily say that that’s the cause. And I think that we did a very good job in the paper of making that point. And in the subsequent interviews I think that we made that point very effectively. But it wasn’t always carried that way, and it wasn’t always translated that way into the general media.”
This was exactly what I’d been hoping to hear! I’d been worried that he’d recognized the graphic value of what he’d seen and had been exploiting it to make his point.
When I asked whether he was bothered by how the media used his findings, Amstrup’s response was pitch-perfect. “Scientific credibility suffers because of that,” he said. “The point is that you have to present it in a careful fashion and if the media takes it and embellishes it and spectacularizes it, then you lose the scientific connection … and that’s really critical to people like us. We have to maintain that.” His measured tones and eminently reasonable ideas were a cool rebuke to anyone who ever said that the threat to polar bears was overblown. Including me.
Amstrup reassured me that the data collection and analysis had not been hurried in order to get the polar bear listed as threatened; Stirling described lab tests that proved that although bears might eat berries, they weren’t metabolizing them for nutritional benefit. And when Amstrup described the care he took in his statistical modeling, I came away assured that the population projections were as ironclad as could be hoped for in this inexact field.
When I asked Amstrup point blank whether the polar bears would go extinct, he was quick to demur. The consensus was that for a long time there would be ice somewhere in the high Arctic. And where there is ice, there will be bears. Not very many bears, but not complete extinction either. “There are likely to be small pockets of bears,” Amstrup said, in “places where walrus are going to increasingly haul out on land as the sea ice retreats. … Some polar bears will figure that out. So there may be some small pockets of bears that figure out some kind of an equilibrium where they can survive the ice-free period. But it’s not very consistent with what we know about polar bears to suggest that whole populations of bears … are likely to survive in the terrestrial environment.”
Order had been restored to my crunchy liberal universe. I still thought that Rocky made sense when he spoke about the integrity of the scientific process, but these guys weren’t charlatans—my word, not Rocky’s—and they weren’t purposefully overselling their research.
“This was a good interview,” Amstrup said as he unfolded his long frame from the couch. “It’s obvious that you’ve done your homework.” Talking to Amstrup had been a perfect capper to my months of research. And the best part was that he hadn’t come close to saying that every last polar bear was about to die.
Which is why I was so surprised to see Amstrup and Stirling on TV the next day.
But when Amstrup and Stirling came on-screen for their star turns, I was shocked by what they said. The anchorman assumed his most portentous voice, describing a bleak tableau of starving polar bears, despite the fact that this had been a relatively fat year. “They’re under stress,” he said, his voice heavy, before turning to “Dr. Steven Amstrup,” who has “joined me on our Tundra Buggy to explain the evidence behind the decision to list the polar bear as threatened. Evidence like cannibalism.”
Cut to Amstrup, handsome and grave, wind in his hair, the Voice of Truth.
“Large adult males that were clearly stalking, killing, and eating other bears,” he said. “So it wasn’t a situation where bears were having a fight over a mate or something like that and one of them was killed in the process and the other bear decided, ‘Well, as long as I’ve got a dead bear here I’ll go ahead and eat it.’ It was actual stalking and killing and then consuming other animals. That sort of thing we just hadn’t seen in all the years I’d been there.”
Wait a second. Hadn’t Amstrup just finished telling me that the cannibalism thing was getting too much play by a bloodthirsty media? Although I knew he hadn’t approved the lead-in claiming that cannibalism and the endangered-species listing were directly connected, he wasn’t a media naïf, either. He must have known that phrases like stalking and killing would incite any producer’s most lurid instincts. At the very least, he wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to tamp down the hype he’d just been decrying.
Amstrup continued: “The projections that we developed last year, based on the data that we have and the climate models projecting what the future of sea ice is going to be … those projections suggest that polar bears are going to be absent from the Beaufort Sea of Alaska by the middle of this century.” Absent. There it was: the zero.
Upset as I was about Stirling and Amstrup resorting to cannibalism in front of the cameras, I understood. Hard science is an impossibly tough sell. From years of doing media, Amstrup had to have known that he’d have only a few minutes to make his case. And nothing sells like blood. I had to admit that I’d wanted the cannibalism story to be the beginning and the end of it, too. It was too good a disaster metaphor to ignore. I’d even used it on the very first page of my book.
I wanted the polar-bear story to be simple and stark. But the more I learned, the more melodramatic it became, with everyone slipping into roles that were far too easy to caricature. Yet despite the opposing viewpoints, everybody had one thing in common: the skeptics, the cynics, the starry-eyed idealists—they all wanted polar bears to thrive. Every single person I met said they wanted the best for the bears, and without exception I believed every single one of them.
JC comments: The dynamics of Unger’s story about the polar bear scientists are being played out in many examples related to ecological and climate change science: the transformation of some scientists into media stars and advocates, exaggeration under the guise of ‘simplification’ for the media, and the dismissal of skeptical science. Unger does a superb job of articulating the challenges to a journalist in navigating all this.
In closing, I can’t resist posting my favorite polar bear cartoon: