When a video of an emaciated and bedraggled polar bear searching for food on dry land emerged as a viral symbol of climate change in December, skeptics came running.
“I’ve called this practice of filming dead or dying bears and splashing the photos across the pages of newspapers and the internet 'tragedy porn' — a kind of voyerism [sic] that leaves people open to emotional manipulation,” wrote Susan Crockford, a zoologist on her blog polarbearscience.com at the time. “The internet laps it up.”
In truth, no one knows if melting sea ice caused that particular bear’s food shortage. The bear could have been sick, not starving because of climate change, as scientists pointed out. Without an autopsy, no one can know for sure.
But a new study, published online Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, revealed that polar bears have, in fact, become a “poster species” for climate skeptics and deniers. Looking at 90 blogs — half of which recognized humans' role in climate change and half of which denied it — the researchers found that bloggers who deny melting sea ice or the plight of the bears also peddle misinformation to their readers about climate change. These bloggers exploit the difference between what scientists know for sure and what they can say is very likely, the researchers found.
There’s ample evidence that regions of the world where polar bears live are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet because of human activity — and that polar bear populations have declined as a result. But bears in the Arctic are hard to count, and scientists aren’t able to track them everywhere they go. What’s clear though, is that a loss of sea ice means a loss of habitat for the bears.
Still, climate change advocates and skeptics alike point to the beloved bears to further their agendas. Their charisma and cult-status (think Coca-Cola) make them useful to environmentalists to show how climate change threatens ecosystems and species.
“Natural scientists recognize the importance of uncertainty,” Meena Balgopal, a professor of biology at Colorado State University and one of the study’s authors, told VICE News. “That in a sense is driving that ongoing dynamic process of science.”
Even one of the scientists who co-authored the study urged caution after the polar bear video went viral. “We cannot say, from the footage captured here, that this bear’s malnutrition was caused by global warming and its associated sea ice loss,” Steven Amstrup of Polar Bears International wrote in a blog post at the time.
But climate-denying bloggers, out to prove that global warming is a hoax, have latched onto that uncertainty and used it to push climate denialism. “The climate-denying blogs were saying that any level of uncertainty creates an opening for doubt,” Balgopal added.
"I’ve called this practice of filming dead or dying bears and splashing the photos across the pages of newspapers and the internet 'tragedy porn.'"
To many of these blogs — like Watts Up With That? and Climate Depot — the Arctic is just fine. Any ice that’s receding is doing so because of natural cycles, not because of anything humans are doing. “‘Fat, healthy polar bears prompt Gore to abandon their use as a ‘global warming’ icon,” read a headline on Climate Depot’s homepage on Wednesday.
The researchers singled out one scientist in their study — Crockford — whose work was cited as a primary source by about 80 percent of the contrarian websites the researchers studied.
Crockford is a professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. While she has published peer-reviewed work that touches on polar bears, she’s also published in journals that aren’t peer-reviewed, like the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Conservative think tank Heartland Institute has also funded some of her work. (She also self-published a novel about people getting mauled by mobs of polar bears in Newfoundland.)
Crockford has vehemently attacked the work in the BioScience study. When a preview was posted online in December, she essentially called it “academic rape.”
In a blog post published Tuesday, she accused the 14 researchers of teaming up on her to discredit her work.
“A lone female scientist without the strong backing of a university must have looked like easy prey to 14 climate-action lions,” Crockford wrote. “However, this made the authors so overconfident they got bitten in the ass by their own hubris, and they now have no one to blame but themselves.”
Crockford hung up the phone when VICE News asked her to elaborate on why she found the BioScience study objectionable. Her widely-cited study is not peer-reviewed. Asked via email whether she planned to publish a rebuttal to the study in a peer-reviewed journal, she said, “I’ll let the co-authors of the Bioscience piece live in fear that I will.”
Regardless of Crockford’s demands that the study not be published, Scott Collins, BioScience’s editor-in-chief, said the journal “determined that there was no grounds to do so,” although he took her objections seriously, according to the New York Times. Crockford, however, did get in two small corrections.
Cover image: A polar bear curls up in the fresh snow in its enclosure in Sosto Zoo in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, Sunday, March 18, 2018. (Attila Balazs/MTI via AP)