An Unlikely Priority

A small news splash surfaced this week over a recent paper in Nature, regarding the prospects for Arctic sea ice and, consequently, polar bear populations. Until this paper was published, studies had only examined business-as-usual scenarios. We didn’t really know whether or not, if we pursued aggressive mitigation, it would be too late to save the polar bears from extinction.

The GCM output this paper analysed suggested that there is hope. They found the relationship between temperature and sea ice cover to be more linear, and the ice-albedo feedback in the Arctic to be weaker, than we previously thought. Tipping points where sea ice is beyond hope might not be such a problem. Therefore, we may still have a chance to limit damage to the ecosystem that experiences consequences of climate change earliest and strongest, and the polar bears might still make it. Nature News has a great summary for those who want more detail on the literature.

When the story showed up in my CBC News feed, however, I was bewildered at the angle they took:

Polar bears could be saved from extinction if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced in the next decade or two, a study released Wednesday suggests.

As if that’s the most compelling reason to pursue mitigation…

Don’t get me wrong: it would be a shame to see the polar bears go. But it would be much worse to see agriculture in the subtropics go, or to see low-lying nations go. I believe that the public is wise enough to understand that sentimental notions about an oft-romanticized species are minuscule in their importance when compared to matters of human security.

Additionally, since polar bears reside at the top of the food chain, the ecological consequences of their loss – while certainly not trivial – would probably be less intense than if it were another species. Imagine the hypothetical scenario of termites going extinct – it would be much worse. Termites aren’t quite so cute and cuddly, though.

I continue to be amazed by choices that the mainstream media makes as to which studies to report on and which studies to ignore. Their picture of ordinary people’s priorities is baffling and somewhat insulting. I get it – I have a strong affinity for wildlife – but the species I care about the most is still Homo sapiens, despite its blatant shortcomings.


9 thoughts on “An Unlikely Priority

    • Well, crap.

      Say, does anyone know if there’s ever been an inactivist reply to ocean acidification? Especially from the Greening Earth “We Call It Life” crowd?

  1. Brian, I have seen a few articles claiming there is no ocean acidification. Often it is based on the confusion between acidification and acid pH–that is, an acid pH is lower than pH 7 while acidification includes becoming less base, e.g. pH 10 to pH 9. The pH 9 is not acidic but the process itself can still be called acidification as it often involves increasing H ions in some form.

    Other times it is based on the belief that CO2 isn’t increasing.

    Type in “ocean acidification…” and the Google will supply the rest as in “ocean acidification hoax”. Not much of a leap from saying CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas to saying CO2 won’t lower the pH of the ocean. Both involve complete ignorance of physics and chemistry.


  2. I’m not sure if polar bears or orcas are the top predator up there, but losing any top predator can cause what’s called a trophic cascade; food chains aren’t piled up from the bottom as we used to think. I tried a longer post on that but must have lost it.

  3. You’re right, Hank. Food webs can be driven by top-down processes as well as bottom-up processes, usually both happening at the same time. This was part of our work in the southwest Yukon region (The Kluane Project).

    The big project is finished now, but there is still ongoing research on a smaller scale (which is what I was involved with) studying (and publishing) some of the questions that came from the main project.

    And slightly off-topic, let me take this opportunity to thank you (Hank) for all those great links you provide in comments on RC and other places. They’re sometimes as informative as the main posts. Hat off to you.

  4. Thanks Ken; a lifetime love of librarians keeps me always looking.

    And — wow!

    Kate, you might look further into the food web in the Arctic if you’re curious; I don’t know if what sort of trophic cascades might be expected — humans have set off quite a few; the classic is hunting down the Bering Sea fur seals, triggering a sea urchin explosion that consumed most of the kelp forests.

    Some of our respect for charismatic megafauna may be deep wisdom. You know Thinking Like a Mountain by Aldo Leopold I trust.

    In the Arctic more than polar bears depends on sea ice. I have no idea what else, but when I looked up what polar bears eat, I found

    “… Ringed seal birth lairs are caves built under snow drifts next to a hole in the ice. The snow drifts are on stable sea ice attached to land…. Mother seals and pups have the high fat content needed for hungry polar bear mothers and their growing cubs….
    ° Birth lairs are usually on sea ice attached to land, allowing young [seal] cubs (who have little protective fat) to avoid crossing water….”

    It’s being noticed:

  5. Speaking of trophic cascades, did you see these papers?

    Climate change even before we started burning fossil fuel, a reminder that interrupting natural cycles by removing top predators has awesome consequences that take decades to become apparent.

    Captain Nemo was right.

    Read them together:

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