Polar bears have long been a symbol of a warming climate, a visible victim of shrinking sea ice cover and changing weather patterns. The bears’ loss of habitat was among the early signs of climate change, and one that was easily communicated to the public.
But in recent years, a sprawling network of climate change deniers are, strangely, using the symbol of the polar bear in their fight against climate science.
“If you tell a lie big enough, often enough, people will begin to believe it,” says Ian Stirling, a prominent polar bear biologist.
Stirling is a co-author on a new paper in the journal BioScience that describes a tactic used by climate-denial blogs to attack visible symbols of climate change instead of the science backing it.
“Because this evidence is so overwhelming, it would be virtually impossible to debunk; the main strategy of denier blogs is therefore to focus on topics that are showy and in which it is therefore easy to generate public interest,” the authors write.
“Proponents of creationism and intelligent design use the same strategy: Instead of providing scientific evidence in favor of their opinions, they instead focus selectively on certain lines of evidence for evolution and attempt to cast doubt on them.”
One of the darlings of this network of denial blogs is a University of Victoria adjunct professor named Susan Crockford.
Crockford is a zoologist who has never published a peer-reviewed paper on polar bears, or conducted any original research on them, yet who has been referred to by the Heartland Institute as “one of the world’s foremost experts on polar bears.”
Crockford Built up by Denial Organizations, Blogs
Real polar bear researcher Stirling, who spent more than four decades studying polar bears and publishing over 150 papers and five books on the topic, says Crockford has “zero” authority on the subject.
“The denier websites have been using her and building her up as an expert,” says Stirling.
The paper found that 80 per cent of the denier blogs they studied had referred to her blog. Crockford has also been featured as a speaker and panelist at Heartland Institute conferences.
Her popularity in denier circles is no surprise, given Crockford’s comforting, status quo-friendly stance.
A favourite line of reasoning Crockford returns to is that polar bears will be able to adapt to changes in sea ice — if the ice is in fact disappearing at all.
“Quite simply, the fact that a few individuals die during early breakup years in Western Hudson Bay is a good thing for future polar bears, not a catastrophe,” Crockford wrote on her blog, arguing that evolution will happen at a fast enough rate that the population will benefit from years of low sea ice.
That view is not shared by the paper's authors.
Adaptation an Uphill Battle for Polar Bears
“Sea-ice habitat reductions during past interglacial periods occurred over millennia (rather than over the decadal scales that accompany AGW), giving the bears more time to adjust their behavior and distribution,” write the authors, among whom, once again, are actual polar bear researchers who do actual research on polar bears.
“Because current warming cannot be reversed without human action, the prognosis for polar bears and other Arctic biota without GHG mitigation is bleak.”
A study last year by University of Alberta researcher Andrew Derocher found that the predators are not able to get enough energy from alternative food sources, like bird eggs, that they can find on land.
“It's a nice idea, but the energy density of these foods is low, their abundance is low — and there's a whole other idea that if it was really a significant potential contribution, the bears would have been using this, and using it all along,” Derocher told me for an article in CBC when the paper was released in September 2016.
“And of course that's not what we've seen.”
Crockford would likely be a lonely voice in the corner if it weren’t for the amplifying impact of larger climate-denial blogs like Junk Science and Climate Depot. But given her convenient narrative of fat, happy polar bears snubbing their noses at climate change, she has become a star. That’s a problem for actual science.
“The considerable influence that blogs exert on public opinion and decision-making should not be underestimated,” write the study’s authors.
“Among users, trust for blogs has been reported to exceed that of other traditional news or information sources.“
The paper calls on scientists to play a more public role in defending their work and to challenge the unscientific claims of climate deniers.
Stirling says it’s a mistake to let the sideshow go on any longer.
“They distract the public at large, particularly in the U.S.… from taking on the biggest threat that the world has ever experienced,” he says.
“Eventually these people will all be disproved but we’re going to pay a terrible price.”
Image by Jimmy Thomson