When Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier filmed a starving polar bear scavenging for food in the Canadian Arctic, little did they know how influential it would become. The image of an emaciated bear roaming the once frozen Somerset Island had arguably done more to advance the climate change narrative than any scientific paper or report could have. The video, shot for the National Geographic website in December 2017, has been seen more than three billion times.
The magazine’s rationale for shooting the video was to highlight how rapidly depleting sea-ice, caused by climate change, was causing these beautiful animals to die out. National Geographic’s message was clear: “This is what climate change looks like.”
Polar bears have become the symbolic image for climate change. What better way to get people to act than by showing them a cute lovable bear suffering at the hands of a cruel and uncaring human population? The guilt would be unimaginable! Act now before it’s too late!
Well, like most of you, I have had other concerns on my mind. But just in case you had forgotten, it looks like we all need to pay attention to climate change once again. A new study, published in Nature Climate Change, a leading British scientific journal, has put a timeline on the survival of this magnificent and deeply misunderstood species. The study predicts that unless we drastically reduce our carbon emissions all but a few high-Arctic polar bear populations will exist by 2100.
So, when the BBC reported on this, could we expect the broadcaster to adhere to its much-vaunted unbiased, robust journalism? Nope. It revised the initial claims made by the study and spun it further, making the strident assumption that: “Polar bears will be wiped out by the end of the century unless more is done to tackle climate change.”
The way the study comes to its conclusion is through a predictive model known as “RCP 8.5”. This “worst-case” scenario assumes carbon emissions, primarily from coal-burning, will increase fivefold worldwide over the next eighty years. It would also mean the world’s average temperature would increase 5 degrees Celsius. A pretty big claim, seeing as coal use is being phased out in virtually every sector of every region around the world.
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Let’s say, hypothetically, we used the RCP 8.5 model and started to increase our carbon emissions, is this really going to mean the end for the polar bear? Polar bears appear to utilise sea ice in order to feed on seals, so perhaps it is worth examining.
But the correlation between polar bear population and disappearing sea-ice is not so clear cut. When it comes to the studies on this relationship, a lot of attention has been focused on the Western Hudson Bay area of Canada. Here, sea ice breaks two weeks earlier than it did forty years ago, forcing the bears to spend an extra month on land. Between 1987 and 2004 their estimated number fell by 22%.
But, if you were to head to northern Scandinavia, where the retreat of the ice in the Barents Sea is far more pronounced – having seen a 50% reduction in summer sea-ice over the last forty years – the polar bear numbers are actually stable. Polar bear numbers have also increased forty per cent in Svalbard. The Kane Basin off north western Greenland – even though losing 1.44 “ice days” per year, or roughly two months of sea-ice loss since 1979, has seen its polar bear population double since 1997.
According to government data, the polar bear population was estimated at 5,000 in 1950. It is now roughly five times that number. In fact, for the last three decades, the polar bear population has remained relatively stable. The latest estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) indicate a median estimate of 26,500 (between 22,000 and 31,000) in 2015.
That has since been revised upwards by Zoologist Susan Crockford. In The State of the Polar Report 2018, she revised the IUCN data and puts the new median estimate for the polar bear population above 30,000.
When it comes to the issue of depleted sea ice, Crockford’s report is crystal clear: even though summer sea ice has dropped 38% in the last forty years, the controversial claim that fewer than 10,000 polar bears would survive in this new environment has been proven to be erroneous. The predicted 67% decline in the polar bear population did not occur. This shows that sea-ice levels are not as important to polar bear survival as biologists had once thought.
The demise of the polar bear has been used as a narrative for far too long by climate activists. Crockford’s work has done wonders to dispel this most misleading of myths. It was a true breakthrough, proving that, despite a decline in sea ice, polar bear populations have failed to follow a downward trend. Instead, it appeared to show an inverse correlation: that as sea ice decreased, polar bears increased.
But the news was not so good for Crockford. As with so many who stand up and challenge the hegemony of the environmental narrative, shortly after the publication of the report, she lost her adjunct teaching status and lost her academic post at Victoria University, which she had held for over 15 years.
As for polar bears? Well, not only have they been able to adapt to a hostile environment, they appear to be thriving in it. Surely that’s a good thing.
I told you they were a misunderstood species.
Noel Yaxley is a freelance writer and political commentator.