A new book with unexpected good news about polar bears

Summary: This is a fascinating book about science, about the making of public policy, about climate change, and above all – about nature. They all intersect in the debate about the future of polar bears.

The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened
Available at Amazon.

 

Review of a fact-rich, logical, and dispassionate book that upsets a key climate change narrative …

The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened.

By Susan Crockford (2019).

 

Zoologist Crockford crisply tells the history of the rise and fall of polar bears as climate change icons. It is an engrossing story of a small niche group of dedicated biologists, the apex predator of the polar regions, and the American public.

“Researchers have learned a lot over the last two decades about bears’ ability to thrive in the Arctic and to take dramatic changes in that hostile environment in their stride – in particular changes in sea ice levels. Unfortunately, that understanding came too late to prevent the polar bear becoming listed as a species threatened with extinction because of future climate changes. …

“Stirling’s paper therefore came at just the right time. Apparently showing a link between manmade global warming and harm to a charismatic beast like the polar bear, it became the basis of a frenzy of global warming agitation. Soon the polar bear had been hoisted to the top of the climate change flagpole, making it the most easily-recognizable symbol of all that mankind was doing wrong in the world. …

“It is a story of scientific hubris and of scientific failure, of researchers staking their careers on untested computer simulations and the attempts to obfuscate inconvenient facts. Polar bear scientists were responsible for elevating the polar bear to climate  change icon status in the first place, actively promoting the idea of a catastrophic future due to man-made global warming. The failure of their predictions has resulted in a loss of public trust that they entirely deserve.”

A sad polar bear resting in the water
ID 1296017 © Stephen Coburn | Dreamstime.

Crockford documents in this tiny scientific community the same behaviors that have become common in climate science, and helped catapult it to fame – and prominence in global public policy debates. Perhaps these dynamics form a contagion that is spreading through the sciences?

  • Natural and non-climate anthropogenic factors are downplayed or outright ignored. For example, polar bear papers ignore the slaughter of polar bears by whalers and other hunters in the 19th and early 20th century (much like Jared Diamond’s theory of eco-cide on Easter Island ignored disease and predation by slavers).
  • Effects are attributed to anthropogenic factors before natural variation is explained.
  • Key aspects of the new paradigm are often based on the expert judgement of activist scientists, but its results are presented to the public as equivalent to Newton’s Law of Gravity.
  • Bold confident predictions are presented as a basis for public policy action before their underlying models are validated.
  • Worst of all, the new paradigm is defended by unprofessional methods against new data and insights (e.g., see the largely bogus attack on her and her work in Harvey et al. (Bioscience, 2017).

Crockford tells a story of science’s weakness and strength. The weakness comes when a small community of scientists adopts a paradigm that boosts their careers. Replication and peer-review might not work well under these conditions. Especially when powerful political interests support the paradigm for their own gain. Under these conditions the paradigm can be defended despite large body of contrary evidence. This is example of the replication crisis gripping so many areas of science.

But the inherent strength of the scientific method wins eventually. Karl Popper said that science begins with clear and testable predictions, such as that made in 2005 by scientists of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN = International Union for Conservation of Nature). The Arctic Ocean was warming, and the disappearance of sea ice would destroy the bears.

“The PBSG recommended that the IUCN Red List committee accept their collective opinion that the polar bear be listed as ‘Vulnerable’; and they told the IUCN that the global population was likely to decline by ‘more than 30% within the next 35 – 50 years’. The following year, the IUCN added polar bears to its Red List, categorising them as being of ‘Threatened’ status …. And this is how the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) became the first species ever to be classified as threatened with extinction based on predictions of future climate change rather than current population status.”

There were other predictions of collapses in bear populations of up to 67%. But Nature did not make us wait so long for the results.

“In summary, despite the fact that sea ice coverage since 2007 has repeatedly reached levels not predicted until 2050 or later, not only has the estimated global population size of polar bears not declined by 67% (i.e. to 8100) – or even just over 30% – it has increased by approximately 20% above the estimate used by the USGS analysts who made the predictions. Such ‘a modest upward trend’ was predicted by critics of the USGS forecasts, based on upward trends in previous decades due to hunting restrictions that are still in place.”

The bears were more adaptable than expected. The birds and seals (bear’s fav foods) loved the climate change, and multiplied. Good news for everybody, except the locals who have to once again cope with thriving polar bear populations.

Tasty! Life is good.

Two Polar Bears Share a meal.
ID 823042 © Digitalphotonut | Dreamstime.

This is a wonderful story, and she tells it well in the first third of the book. Powerful personalities are vividly described, science and politics are clearly explained. The graphics are excellent. She does an equally good job with the rest of the book, which describes scientists’ reaction to the good news about bears. Too much is at stake in the climate wars – both careers and politics – to let data determine the winner. It is an equally gripping story, but in a different way. For example, see her account of how Mitchell Taylor was “booted out” of the PBSG for questioning the paradigm (details here).

To see how the public is told about the unexpected prosperity of polar bears, read “The polar bears are fine” by Tristin Hopper in the National Post, March 2017.

“‘There’s no doubt about what’s happening to Arctic sea ice …but their populations aren’t declining as was once expected,’ said Douglas Clark, a University of Saskatchewan researcher …To be sure, polar bear biologists remain convinced that the forecast for the world’s polar bears remains grim. …What scientists can be sure of is that the Arctic is going to keep melting. And whichever way they plot it for ice-dependent polar bears, the result is an Arctic littered with bear bones. …Warming is not universal, and is having a unique effect on every region and every polar bear population. But, says Stirling, ‘warming will eventually reach them all unless we are able to slow or stop it in time.'”

A more pointed observation, graphic but accurately capturing the games being played with science.

“Other areas of science are taking on board the Replication Crisis and trying to do something about it. Contrast this with Harvey et al. {their rebuttal to Crockford} who do not accept any of their work is wrong and leave a horse’s head in Susan Crockford’s bed.
— Australian physicist Peter Ridd, quoted in chapter 7.

Crockford concludes with some speculative and, if correct, awesome news: polar bear populations are expensive to measure (and so poorly measured), but might be far larger than the consensus believes.

This is a book about good news. Science works, in its usual slow sloppy way. The recovery of polar bear populations is a major public policy success, showing that our political machinery can still work. Last, and most important, nature is more resilient than doomsters believe. I found it well worth reading.

Susan Crockford

About the author

Susan Crockford is a zoologist with more than 35 years experience, including published work on the Holocene history of Arctic animals. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia (a “non-remunerated professional zooarcheologist associate”) and co-owner of a private consulting company, Pacific Identifications Inc.

See her publications and her website Polar Bear Science. See her first book about polar bears: Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change. See my review of it.

She has also written a novel, Eaten – a polar bear attack thriller.

For More Information

An example of fear-mongering about polar bears: Mother Jones sounds the alarm about global warming! This time about the north pole. Exploiting the polar bear story for political gain!

To understand better how science works, see Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and my posts about climate change. Also see all posts about polar bears, the arctic area, and polar sea ice, and especially these with good news about the climate…

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9 thoughts on “A new book with unexpected good news about polar bears

  1. Thanks for providing coverage for her book. I just ordered it, but I am not surprised about her findings.

    1. Chad,

      “… I am not surprised …”

      No sane person should be.
      Political and even environmental activism, are OK, I guess; but when these two coalesce, one should rightly be suspicious; and when this “coalition” masquerades as a science, apage Satanas!

  2. I’ll definitely check out this “scientific” book that a lobbying front published because no science publisher would. Always love to hear from those truth-seeking “scientists” that can’t even be bothered to do field research or submit their work for peer-review.

    1. Brent,

      Don’t bother to read it. Your mind is obviously closed to insights that challenge your beliefs.

      “Always love to hear from those truth-seeking “scientists” that can’t even be bothered to do field research ”

      Most scientists process information gathered by others. Perhaps you have heard of some. For example, Einstein.

      “submit their work for peer-review.”

      As has become obvious in climate science and a great many other fields, the peer-review process is broken. Hence the massive reflection by scientists about necessary changes. It’s called the replication crisis.

      This especially acute in a small field, such as polar bear studies. Crockford describes what happens to dissenters (one example is mentioned in this review, which you do not appear to have read).

      Try opening your mind. Who knows what you might learn!

    2. Brent,
      Global polar bear populations have plummeted from 24,500 in 2005 to 29,500 in 2018.
      (pssst…that’s a 20% increase and sarcasm and the keys to free you from the echo chamber you’re trapped in.)

      1. Hifast,

        A note about polar bear numbers – In chapter ten, Susan Crockford explains that we have only rough estimates of global polar bear population.

        • Aerial surveys are expensive and imprecise.
        • Ground surveys are expensive, and the radio collars used are controversial (and banned in many provinces of Canada).
        • Methodologies vary from region to region, and have drastically changed over time – making comparisons difficult or (sometimes) impossible.

        Hence the dispute about changes in the population in recent time – such as the past 15 years Crockford discusses as the test — since hunting stopped (after ~1972) – and since pre-industrial (i.e., before whalers began the great slaughter). There is broad agreement that estimated population have increased during the past two decades, but not whether this is statistically significant. Changes over the other periods are disputed.

        The one group that insists that the population has increased are the people living along with polar bears. But many scientists say this reflects changes in bear movements, not population. On the other hand, Crockford makes a strong case that the bear’s population has increased – a lot.

        As usual in climate science, we’re told drastic action is needed on the basis of confident statements about data that when examined is of low quality. But neither side has much interest in spending the money to get solid numbers. The current food fight is too much fun.

        “Beam me up, Scotty. There is no intelligent life down here.”
        — Never said in Star Trek. But Kirk might have said it if he visited us.

  3. Came across these two You Tubes about nuclear and renewables accounting for energy in production and recycling.

    Why I changed my mind about nuclear power | Michael Shellenberger | TEDxBerlin

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-yALPEpV4w

    Why renewables can’t save the planet | Michael Shellenberger | TEDxDanubia

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZXUR4z2P9w

    Also when I was travelling internationally we had a stop over in Hong Kong and I got a free copy of the South China Morning Post, in the paper there was an article from a Chemical Engineer and Head of his department I think, who wrote an article on producing cobalt the element needed in most electric vehicles. The long and short of the article (with only Year 12 science) was it is produced by treating in sulphuric acid at a very high pressure and extremely polluting, in fact it is so polluting even Indonesia which has cobalt does not want to process it in Indonesia.

    I am wondering if with the 17 times the energy to produce solar cells compared to a nuclear plant, the 10 – 25 year life cycle and then the huge e-pollution of recycling them in the third world, if there is actually any environmental merit in the things. I will say i thought originally there was and I have 4.25 kW of solar cells on my roof.

    Perhaps top of the line coal and nuclear might not be a better way forward, and I can say anyone that knows me would not have believed I would uter such a thing even a year ago.

    1. Just a Guy,

      I agree on all points. The solar waste problem is going to get really bad in two decades, and I’ll bet we will have nothing to prepare. See “The Mounting Solar Panel Waste Problem” in Canada Free Press — “The growth in solar panel waste worldwide is large and needs to be addressed as it is expected to get larger.”

      Our increased dependence on noxious substances like rare earths and cobalt, will cause problems unless managed.

      But, as I have said before, the nuclear industry’s record of mismanagement and safety problems probably has lost the confidence of key institutions (financial and utilities) and the general public. My guess (guess) is that radical restructuring will be necessary to regain it. Perhaps (speculating) putting the entire thing (construction and operation) under government management – with a seperate agency to monitor safety. The good record of the US Navy’s nuclear program might make this possible.

      But a solution that satisfies the radicals on the Left (no nukes, no fossil fuels!) and the far right (no government involvement in anything but the military!) will make rational policy difficult to impossible to achieve. As I have written, we’re experiencing a slow-mo institutional decay in America. Energy policy is just another example of many.

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