Zac Unger was a firm believer in the much-touted news that polar bears were declining. To further substantiate what he had been hearing, he spent three months in Churchill with his family doing research for his book. (1) If you haven’t heard, Churchill is the place to go to see polar bears. Its located on the west shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, and is most famous for the many polar bears that move toward the shore from inland in the autumn, leading to the nickname ‘Polar Bear Capital of the world.’ This has put Churchill on the map, helping its growing tourism industry.
Unger was worried that complete extinction of polar bears was somewhere on the horizon. He interviewed Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International and one of the leading researchers on polar bears. When Unger talked to Amstrup, he asked him point blank whether he thought polar bears would go extinct. Amstrup was quick to demur. “The consensus was that for a long time to come 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.”
Unger was happy that Amstrup had reduced his more radical claims, or at least repudiated the way they were twisted by the media. “At least, Amstrup hadn’t played the Chicken Little role, hadn’t come close to saying that every last polar bear would be dead in my lifetime.”
Then, much to Unger’s surprise he heard a different story from Amstrup and a fellow researcher on CNN the very next night. “When Amstrup and Ian Stirling came on-screen for their star turns, I was shocked by what they said. Large adult males were clearly stalking, killing and eating other bears,” Amstrup 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.”
Unger continues,”Wait a second, Hadn’t Amstrup just finished telling me that he thought the cannibalism was getting too much play by a blood-thirsty 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 naif either. He must have known that phrases like ‘stalking and killing’ would only incite the producer’s most lurid instincts. At the very least, he wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to tramp down the extraneous hype that he’d been decrying to me just hours earlier.” And it only got worse from there. 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 the century. Absent. There it was: the zero.”
In reading a paper of Amstrup, Unger noted that Amstrup made clear (in the paper) that he was referring to a specific subpopulation of bears—the Southern Beaufort Sea group—rather than the population as a whole. However, its not like the average CNN viewer would realize that the population that Amstrup and the anchor was talking about, whose imminent death they were lamenting was 2,000 miles away from the bears they were currently filming. No mention was made of the fact that polar bears seemed likely to survive in the high Arctic; nothing was said about the subpopulations of polar bears that were holding steady or increasing.
Unger re-read the paper a dozen times, yet for the television audience, for the 99.9 percent of people who would never bother to do the reading for themselves, it was all being boiled down to one thing. It was all about the zero. And, in an edited TV appearance, Amstrup seemed just fine with that, adds Unger. The conclusion Unger drew from this was that Amstrup had to have known that he’d have only a few minutes to make his sell. And nothing sells like blood.
With his pronouncements, Amstrup was taking a page from Steven Schneider and Al Gore’s actions. Schneider, a former ice age supporter in the 70s (he wrote a book about this), and then a convert to global warming has said, “To capture the public’s attention, scientists have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts. (2) Gore is famous for his film, An Inconvenient Truth, which has at least 35 ‘inconvenient truths’ (lies?). (3) Scare the public to get their attention! Truth be damned!
Unger wanted the polar bear story to be simple and dramatic. But the more he learned, the more complicated it became. He went to Churchill believing that Amstrup’s word was gospel, only to be seduced by steady chipping away at the assumptions that underlay the conventional wisdom. Steven Amstrup won him back, only to push him away with his hyperbole. Everything Unger thought he knew about polar bears and about how an environmental disaster should be sold to a willing public was getting twisted around.
Local people in places like Churchill look on the carnival of tourists, journalists and scientists with bemusement, knowing full well that even there…in one of the most southerly polar bear populations of all—the evidence of a decline in numbers, or of the health of the bears is threadbare or non-existent reports Susan Crockford. (4)
Other places have similar observations. Rebecca Terrell writes, “Recent reports reveal polar bear populations are defying doomsday predictions. In the Hudson Bay area, where numbers were predicted to decline to about 650 by 2011, the population is holding steady around 1,000 bears. In Davis Strait, estimates have swelled from, 850 in the mid-1980s to 2,100 in 2007. And last year, notwithstanding the polar bear’s endangered status, Russia lifted a band on hunting the species for the first time since 1957—a ban that came about not because of global warming but due to overhunting.” (5)
Jake MacDonald adds, “In villages across the Arctic, Inuit are reporting an invasion. Polar bears, once rare, are now strolling the streets, peeking in the windows, killing dogs—even stalking. No place has been more menaced than Arviat. In 2012, the Nunavit government conducted a long-awaited census of western Hudson Bay polar bears and came up with 1,013 animals, or about twice as many as the number projected by Environment Canada.” (6)
Advocates fail to mention that we experienced the near extinction of polar bears forty years ago. The general consensus that has been cited is that there are about 25,000 polar bears alive today, as compared to the 5,000 bears that roamed the earth in 1973. But recently, and better yet, Susan Crockford has just reported there are now 22,600 to 32,000 polar bears worldwide, a big change from the 20,000 to 25,000 that has been touted as the global bear population since 2005. (7)
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