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The polar bear wars

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 13, 2013 08:01 AM

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polar bear.jpegThe polar bear has become the cuddly, tragic symbol of global warming. A drowning bear, grasping at shards of sea ice, served as the enduring image from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. And in 2008, after a long campaign, the polar bear was listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act—becoming the first vertebrate to receive that designation solely because of the threat global warming poses to its habitat.

A story last week in Yale Environment 360 outlined a number of creative strategies that have been proposed to save the bears, whose hunting range has been constrained by melting ice packs. Some proposals are heroic, like dropping dead seals from helicopters to feed starving bears, or transporting bears from thriving subpopulations to sparsely populated regions farther north. Others are mundane, like housing more polar bears in zoos. Still others are grim: The Yale article quotes zoologist Steven Amstrup who says that in some cases, “Euthanasia may be the most humane option for individual bears in very poor condition that are unlikely to survive.”

But before you shed a tear, consider: Maybe polar bears aren’t so bad off after all. In fact, the status of polar bears—whether they’re thriving or dying—is as hotly debated in some quarters as global warming itself.

Zac Unger is one person who was compelled by the polar bear’s sad story—but when he went looking for emaciated bears, he found the situation was less bleak than he’d imagined. Unger, a writer from Oakland, California, moved his family to Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, in order to see the polar bear’s demise for himself. He recounts his time there in a new memoir, “Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye.” As he explained recently to NPR, he found the bears were so prevalent that Churchill had established a hotline—675-BEAR—that citizens could call whenever they spotted one roaming the streets.

“When I got up there, I started realizing polar bears were not in as bad a shape as the conventional wisdom had led me to believe,” Unger told NPR.

But anecdotes are a tenuous form of knowledge, especially when you’re talking about something as complicated as climate change. It’s hard, for example, to extrapolate from the latest mega-blizzard to global climate patterns. By that same token, environmentalists would point to polar bears in city streets as confirmation—not negation—of the effects of climate change (absent sufficient natural hunting grounds, the polar bears have no choice but to forage in dumpsters).

Statistics about polar bear populations might settle the matter, but here, too, there’s controversy. Current estimates put the number of polar bears in the wild at 20,000 to 25,000, spread across 19 subpopulations in a handful of northern countries. Those are strong numbers (the global polar bear population has quadrupled over the last 40 years), and most people agree on them.

But which way are things trending now? Here’s where the fight picks up.

A 2010 report from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Polar Bear Specialist Group assessed the current population patterns among the 19 subpopulations. It found that eight were declining, three were stable, one was growing, and seven had been insufficiently studied to say one way or the other.

At the same time, some scientists have criticized the models used to make these kinds of forecasts. A 2008 review by researchers at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania found significant errors in many of the pessimistic studies that had been invoked during the push to declare polar bears endangered (including one by zoologist Steven Amstrup, who is quoted above). They concluded that such models should be considered “unscientific and inconsequential to decisionmakers.”

It turns out, then, that the polar bear may be the perfect symbol for the debate about global warming after all. There are the dueling anecdotes—Al Gore’s drowning polar bears versus Zac Unger’s stories of polar bear abundance. And there’s the fact that the reddest of the red flags in both cases come from the inherently arguable science of projection and modeling. The real problem about polar bears, and the real scary thing about climate change, is that while it’s perfectly true that we don't know the future direction of either for certain, by the time we do know, it may be too late.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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