Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Polar Bears

It's sad but true that environmentalists and animal welfare groups are not a very credible lot. Many of them spread misinformation in alarming ways; media prints their claims without sufficient research; and the public is left not knowing what to believe. The real shame is that environmentalists have framed several issues in such unrealistic ways that there is little hope now that the public will ever grasp the reality of the situation. And increasingly, the target is animals in northern countries: seals, polar bears, whales.

For example, this article is a fascinating discussion of the framing of the anti-whaling debate. The author says, "Environmental and animal welfare activists often speak about the whale in the singular. We are told that the whale is the world's largest animal, that it has the world's largest brain, that its brain is large in comparison to body weight, that it is social and friendly, that it sings, that it has its own child care system, and that it is threatened, etc. It is true that the blue whale is the world's largest animal and that the sperm whale has the world's largest brain (although it is small in comparison to the animal's size), but most of the other assertions are difficult to prove. Those that do hold some truth are rarely true for more than one or two of the more than 75 different whale species which exist. When one speaks about the whale they are combining all the characteristics found among the various species, such that the whale has them all. But such a whale does not exist; it is a mythical creation, a "super whale"..."

Part of the lack of credibility is due to the pressures for funding. Environmental organizations (like poverty organizations) need something catchy to put in their TV ads and flyers because that's how they attract donors. And funding requires the appearance of effectiveness, so they can never back down, never admit they were wrong, rarely even lay off on a topic. When it becomes clear that most whale species are not endangered, they just switch tacks and oppose whaling on moral grounds. When the Canadian government made it illegal to hunt those doe-eyed white seal pups, they just keep on fighting to save them - even make them the centerpiece of their anti-sealing campaigns for decades after they were protected.

At last week's polar bear summit, a new fight started to take shape: scientists and environmentalists argued that polar bears are endangered and need protection from hunting; and Inuit representatives claimed that polar bear populations are rising. Environmentalists relied on models that project the effect of global warming decades into the future; Inuit spoke with first-hand knowledge of bears, both current and based on oral history. Both points of view had merit, and it's unfortunate that the groups are polarized - but in terms of credibility, I'm with the Inuit.

It's not just the Inuit who oppose protection of polar bears. A pattern has emerged: people who live in the north tend to oppose protection, while those who support moves like the recent US endangered species designation for polar bears are largely from the south. For example, see this NYT op-ed by Sarah Palin.

Why the difference? Here are some possible reasons:
* Many populations of polar bears are increasing. Some in northern Ontario have increased by 50% in recent years. Only a couple of populations have decreased yet.
* Polar bears are one of the most dangerous predators in the world. In communities that have polar bear incursions, there is virtually no way to keep them from attacking houses, short of building the house up on stilts and putting spikes on the steps. In such areas, every person - even co-op students - must have gun training and be armed at all times.
* Global warming is wreaking havoc on the north in all sorts of ways. The cause is all "from away" but the lifestyle of northerners is being affected negatively, and it must seem to them like adding insult to injury for southerners to first cause the pollution that's messing things up in the north, and now to try to curtail the activities of northerners because things are messed up.
* The Inuit have a long oral history and the north has seem plenty of change. Animals adapt, and the Inuit believe that polar bears will adapt to global warming.

Two-thirds of the world's polar bears live in Canada. It looks like polar bears may become the target of environmental organizations just as whales and seals have, and we may be in for a lot more disinformation.



Anonymous said...

There are maybe just 20,000 polar bears left, at most maybe 25,000. About 60% are in Canada (much of the time). The breaking up of the ice is, to say the least, not good for them. And there is every reason to expect that the ice will continue to break up for a while at least, maybe for a very long while, maybe until it's gone. At least from the polar bears' perspective there is a problem. What to do? I don't think it helps to promulgate the view that all is well, unless you suppose that losing the polar bears would be no loss. No doubt there is a lot of "disinformation" out there. But some of the disinformation is coming from those who want us to think that there is no problem, that the polar bears are not in jeopardy. Is that your view Yappa?

Yappa said...

I don't know the answers, but I hate to see the polar bear issue being coopted in the same way the seal and whale issues were. I'd like this to be a realistic and rational discussion, not another play for multinational NGOs to get donations.

Do I think they're in jeopardy? The Inuit arguments are fairly persuasive: that only four populations out of a couple dozen are declining, and that polar bears can and will adapt to warming. On the other hand, the Inuit have a conflict of interest because they make money by guiding southern hunters to shoot them.

But... whether or not polar bears are endangered, I'm not sure that the hunt makes an iota of difference. The annual quota of permits is already set by the year's population. The cause of the problem is melting ice and hunting doesn't affect that.