Polar bears have become the cuddly face of climate change. Thanks to man-made global warming, Arctic ice is retreating and thinning, leaving polar bears in serious jeopardy of starvation. Or so we’re told.
But what if a “hero of the environmental movement,” Zac Unger, told you that polar bears, all things considered, are doing far better than most people imagine?
Unger just penned a book, Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows, detailing his family’s journey up to the Hudson Bay—Churchill, Manitoba, to be exact—where polar bears were supposedly sometimes just as plentiful as the citizenry. His goal, in his own words, was to “to bring the apocalypse home by writing a mournful elegy for the polar bears, which would quickly establish me as the heir to Rachel Carson/John Muir/Edward Abbey. Easy.”
Except it wasn’t easy at all.
In a recent NPR interview, Unger dropped a couple of gems revealing just how mistaken his strident preconceived notions had been.
So 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, which was actually very heartening, but didn’t fit well with the book I’d been planning to write.
Well, here’s a fact that kind of blew me away when I first realized it. There are far more polar bears alive today than there were 40 years ago. There are about 25,000 polar bears alive today worldwide. In 1973, there was a global hunting ban. So once hunting was dramatically reduced, the population exploded. This is not to say that global warming is not real or is not a problem for the polar bears. But polar bear populations are large, and the truth is that we can’t look at it as a monolithic population that is all going one way or another.
Unger might not be next oracle of ecological disaster; in fact, I’d be willing to bet that he’s already been discarded by the environmental “true believers” for lacking the proper credentials to have a valid opinion. Furthermore, I wouldn’t doubt if some suspect him of being a shill for Big Oil. In other words, cognitive bias is a remarkable and insidious phenomenon.
Before the true believers write him off, though, they should realize that maybe there’s something to his claims. Unger’s account is congruent with a 2012 survey of the Hudson Bay polar bear population commissioned by Canada’s provincial Nunavut government.
Paul Waldie of the Globe and Mail writes,
The number of bears along the western shore of Hudson Bay, believed to be among the most threatened bear subpopulations, stands at 1,013 and could be even higher, according to the results of an aerial survey released Wednesday by the Government of Nunavut. That’s 66 per cent higher than estimates by other researchers who forecasted the numbers would fall to as low as 610 because of warming temperatures that melt ice faster and ruin bears’ ability to hunt. The Hudson Bay region, which straddles Nunavut and Manitoba, is critical because it’s considered a bellwether for how polar bears are doing elsewhere in the Arctic.
The study shows that ‘the bear population is not in crisis as people believed,’ said Drikus Gissing, Nunavut’s director of wildlife management. ‘There is no doom and gloom.’
Mr. Gissing added that the government isn’t dismissing concerns about climate change, but he said Nunavut wants to base bear-management practices on current information ‘and not predictions about what might happen.’
There is no gloom and doom, at least not within one of the most threatened polar bear subpopulations in the world. What’s important to understand is the prevalence of computer models in environmental science and just how misleading they can be. In this case, the computer forecasts were off by 66 percent, which is extraordinarily embarrassing. Computer models like these are being used by the likes of environmental groups to fan the flames of extinction hysteria. It’s no wonder, then, that the truth proves so shocking to people like Unger.
Finally, the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), arguably the leading authority on polar bears, estimated in 2009 that there were between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears worldwide, but now it puts that number considerably higher, somewhere between 22,600 and 32,100. In other words, polar bears are possibly doing better than even Unger realizes.
And there you have it. Between Unger’s soul-shaking experience, the PBSG report, and the Nunavut government’s comprehensive aerial survey, I think it is safe to say that the polar bear’s plight has been much ado about nothing. Polar bears are most certainly not on the brink of extinction, but rather are stable, if not growing in number.
But will groups like Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund follow Unger’s lead? I wouldn’t hold my breath. That takes humbleness and honesty, two qualities that those arrogant hysterics seem to lack.