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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Regarding polar bears and climate change 

There are two "climate change" anecdotes in the news this morning. The Times (London) reports that European ski resorts are getting lots of new snow in November for the first time in ages. The paper takes great care to remind us that this cannot be taken as evidence that climate is not getting warmer. Fair enough, the sum of anecdotes is not now and never has been data.

The other story is just the latest of many to sweat over polar-bear demographics. The Hudson Bay population continues to decline, extending a trend since 1987. Biologists believe that the early retreat of the ice -- which the bears use as "hunting platforms" -- in the spring cuts short the prime feeding season, which in turn results in thin and therefore more vulnerable bears. The result is that young and old bears are dying disproportionately fast in years when the ice breaks up, and this is proposed as a link between anthropogenic global warming and the declining polar bear population in the western Hudson Bay.

Interestingly, Bjorn Lomborg, in the opening pages of his excellent book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, takes a hard look at Al Gore's manipulation of the polar bear data, a useful pre-refutation of the linked news story:

Padding across the ice, polar bears are beautiful animals. To Greenland -- part of my own nation, Denmark -- they are a symbol of pride. The loss of this animal would be a tragedy. But the real story of the polar bear is instructive. In many ways, this tale encapsulates the broader problem with the climate-change concern: once you look closely at the supporting data, the narrative falls apart.

Al Gore shows a picture ... and tells us "a new scientific study shows that, for the first time, polar bears have been drowning in significant numbers." The World Wildlife Fund actually warns that polar bears might stop reproducing by 2012 and thus become functionally extinct in less than a decade. In their pithy statement, "polar bears will be consigned to history, something that our grandchildren can only read about in books." The Independent tells us that temperature increases "mean polar bears are wiped out in their Arctic homeland. The only place they can be seen is a zoo."

Over the past few years, this story has cropped up many times, based first ona World Wildlife Fund report in 2002 and later in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment from 2004. Both relied extensively on research published in 2001 by the POlar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union.

But what this group really told us was that of the twenty distinct subpopulations of polar bears, one or possibly two were declining in Baffin Bay; more than half were known to be stable; and two subpopulations were actually increasing around the Beaufort Sea. Moreover, it is reported that the global polar-bear population has increased dramatically over the past decades, from about five thousand members in the 1960s to twenty-five thousand today, through stricter hunting regulation. Contrary to what you might expect -- and what was not pointed out in any of the recent stories -- the two populations in decline come from areas where it has actually been getting colder over the past fifty years, whereas the two increasing populations reside in areas where it is getting warmer. Likewise, Al Gore's comment on drowning bears suggests an ongoing process getting ever worse. Actually, there was a single sighting of four dead bears after an "abrupt windstorm" in an area housing one of the increasing bear populations.

The best-studied polar-bear population lives on the western coast of Hudson Bay. That its population has declined 17 percent, from 1,200 in 1987 to under 950 in 2004, has gotten much press. Not mentioned, though, is that since 1981 the population had soared from just 500, thus eradicating the claim of a decline. Moreover, nowhere in the news coverage is it mentioned that 300 to 500 bears are shot each year, with 49 shot on average in the west coast of Hudson Bay. Even if we take the story of decline at face value, it means we have lost about 15 bears to global warming each year, whereas we have lost 49 each year to hunting....

Lomborg -- who carefully explains that global warming is real and man-made -- argues that the polar bear story is emblematic of much of what passes for public discussion of AGW -- that it drives emotional and exaggerated claims and that it makes us focus on the wrong things. Indeed, many of the supposed problems that arise from the likely outcomes described by the leading climate models lend themselves to much more efficient solutions than restructuring the global economy to slash the production of carbon dioxide.

Lomborg's book is currently #502 at Amazon. If you are interested in the argument over AGW and shaping the political and policy response to it, you will want to read his book.

12 Comments:

By Anonymous Nancy, at Sat Nov 24, 09:22:00 AM:

The theory of anthropogenic climate change is the enviro's wet dream. Finally they get an issue that will allow them to impose their regulatory will on the rest of us, raise gobs of money, etc. No matter what the science may say (or what we still do not know). Welcome to "the protective principle" run amuck.

From the data that've I've seen, there is little question that global climatic patterns are shifting and that, overall, there's been some increase in temperature; however, the extent to which this is attributable to human activity as opposed to other forces (including solar activity) is difficult to determine.

I'm not opposed to action, by the way -- I think that breaking our dependence on fossil fuel is a good thing. I am opposed to junk science and scare tactics, be they promulgated by the enviros or "industry". Unfortunately it is hard to find objective information in this dialogue. Even more unfortunate -- the truth doesn't matter anymore. New regulations and restrictions are coming and we are just going to have to learn to work with them no matter the cost that they impose on society.  

By Anonymous Dr. Mercury, at Sat Nov 24, 10:31:00 AM:

There are something like 15 polar bear colonies in Canada. All of them except one have recorded increasing numbers over the past few decades. The one that hasn't was growing so fast that it was endangering the colony, so hunting restrictions were relaxed and that's the colony you've been hearing about.

I think the pertinent question is, how did they manage to survive the last cycle of global warming a thousand years ago, when it was even warmer than it is today?

Perhaps they swam around in small circles for 500 years until the ice reformed? Do Hawk or Mr. Lomborg have a better explanation?

Polar bears have been known to swim 60 miles in the ocean. Being "caught" on a melting iceberg is somewhat akin to saying a bird has been "caught" on a real high tree limb.

"Lomborg -- who carefully explains that global warming is real and man-made"

Due to increases in CO2, I'm guessing. Whether one studies glaciers, tree rings or bat droppings, the record is increasingly clear that CO2 lags behind global temperature fluctuations by some 500 to 800 years.

So, is Lomborg blaming today's warming on the SUVs people were driving 500 years ago?? If only we'd known then what we know now!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Nov 24, 10:50:00 AM:

Are polar bears a quantum mechanical wave function? If we watch them long enough, will they disappear?

Okay, now let's all watch Al Gore, verrrrry closely.

-David  

By Anonymous Bird of Paradise, at Sun Nov 25, 01:05:00 AM:

AL GORE LIED NO POLARS BEARS DIED. SAVE A PENGUIN EAT GREENPEACE.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Nov 25, 06:36:00 AM:

Dr. Merc -

the record is increasingly clear that CO2 lags behind global temperature fluctuations by some 500 to 800 years.

Yes, but that fact does not change our understanding of the impact of CO2 on the climate. It is a feedback loop, and once CO2 starts rising it accelerates increasing temperature. Sure, the earth's temperature can rise and fall for lots of reasons over long periods of time, and those increases and decreases can increase in velocity, as it were, because of changes resulting from the temperature change. CO2 levels will increase as temperatures go up, but that fact does not mean that (i) rising atmospheric CO2 does not cause temperatures to increase even more quickly or (ii) human intervention that raises CO2 levels cannot cause atmospheric warming.

More here, among other places.  

By Blogger davod, at Sun Nov 25, 07:45:00 AM:

TH:

Your response to Dr. Merc reads like you have been drinking the Gorade.

The fact that the IPPC, with every new raft of criticsm, ramps up the kevel of emotion, does not mean the facts have changed.

Lomborg's earlier research sought to put teeth into the global warming thesis by consolidating the research being used to justify the claims. He found that the research provided did not justify the claims. He was almost driven out of acedemia for his heresy.

The GW research has not changed since his earlier debunking. If anything more scientists are declaring that the premis is incorrect. Why has Lomborg done a 180?

Lomborg wants people and governments to proritize the GW issue with all the other serious problems, such as poverty, lack of water and disease. He doesn't think the massive expenditure required to reduce GW by the minimal amount suggested is worth the expense.

The picture we see of the polar bear and its cub stranded on the small ice flow is interesting only in that it shows how easily people can manipulate photographs.

Look at the diary of the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project and scroll down until you see the photo. Look at the comment.

The bear picture is symptomatic of the global warming debate. It is not about facts and reserach, it is about feelings. An feelings will kill millions before global warming does.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Nov 25, 07:54:00 AM:

davod -

I read Lomborg's book, and I do not disagree with it. I liked it and recommend it. The extreme results proposed by the activists are not supported by data, and I agree that there are lots of things that we can do to make moderate and sensible adjustments that will continue to support strong economic growth, etc. That said, the fact that temperature increases can cause changes in CO2 levels is really a red herring, and does not refute or even respond to the arguments being made by the climate change scientists. That does not involve drinking Kool-Aid or whatever -- it is just seeing a nonresponsive point for what it is.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 25, 09:40:00 AM:

"and does not refute or even respond to the arguments being made by the climate change scientists"

No it just shows that originally they didn't know what they were talking about and when the data didn't support their claims, their argument about CO2 changed. (I find it hard to believe you don't see that.)

The original argument was that man-made CO2 is causing global warming. Now it is a forcing mechanism, which is far more believable and less relevant.

Man-made CO2 is about 3-5% of overall CO2 in the atmosphere. It is 0.003 of the atmosphere. Seriously TH you should try to change the argument to reducing our dependancy on foreign oil and polluting less.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Nov 25, 09:51:00 AM:

First, I have long supported high taxes on petroleum for geopolitical purposes.

Second, the reaction of a lot of conservatives, including those commenting on this blog, are as emotional as those of the environmentalists. Climate science has made huge advances in the last 25 years, and especially so in the last ten. The fact that an argument "changes" does not mean that people are making arguments of convenience. The climate models have reflected very complex feedback loops for years, and for years we have known that rising temperature and rising CO2 levels reinforce each other. For example, melting tundra is predicted to release a lot of CO2 because it will trigger decomposition that previously was not happening. That creates more CO2, which traps more heat.

None of this means that I believe the catastrophe scenarios peddled by the threat inflaters. I do not. Lomborg is right -- we have many more pressing matters to solve, and we ought to focus on them. That said, however, conservatives have got to stop making their own specious arguments. For example, I keep reading that the United States has not increased its CO2 output in the decade since Kyoto, but Europe has. Well, that is true, but it is also sort of silly. Americans have more than triple the greenhouse emissions per capita of the French, and more than double the British level. There are good reasons for this (geography, and much lower population density), but it is hardly intellectually honest to make the first point without acknowledging the second.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 25, 10:48:00 AM:

TH,

Please point me to the climate models that account for cloud cover...

Sounds to me like you are the one being emotional. Science is cold hard facts. I can't help that the climate scientists are moving the goal posts. Heck, I even tried to help you get more people to take you seriuously.

Btw, didn't you go solar a little while ago. How's that working out for you? I may be mistaken about that being you.

"said, however, conservatives have got to stop making their own specious arguments. For example, I keep reading that the United States has not increased its CO2 output in the decade since Kyoto, but Europe has. Well, that is true, but it is also sort of silly. Americans have more than triple the greenhouse emissions per capita of the French, and more than double the British level. There are good reasons for this (geography, and much lower population density), but it is hardly intellectually honest to make the first point without acknowledging the second."

But you miss their point. The point is how serious the Europeans are about climate change. They talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. It has nothing to do with the fact the US has been the largest producer of man-made CO2. I don't think anyone argues that point.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Nov 25, 10:54:00 AM:

We're still building the house, but we are putting in photovoltaic power in the roof.

I think the Europeans are, in fact, walking the walk. Sarkozy, for example, just put forth another aggressive new program for cutting French CO2 output, already 1/3 the level of the US per capita.

That said, I think he is probably hurting his country and wasting his time, but that's another subject.  

By Blogger Counter Trey, at Tue Nov 27, 01:06:00 AM:

"...The climate models have reflected very complex feedback loops for years, and for years we have known that rising temperature and rising CO2 levels reinforce each other..."

TH,
Ask the Villain about the complex models that were built by veritable rocket scientists to deal with a more tractable problem--corporate credit in CDOs.

These bright minds had all the incentive in the world to get it right--when right they became very wealthy. They worked with data sets that a climatologist could only dream about. You may already know how that story is ending. We know many who blew their company's capital and are out looking for work now.

Models have failed miserably to capture the complexity in financial data and they cannot capture it in climate.

Singer and Avery contend that there is a 1500 year warming cycle based on solar activity and that CO2 levels rise--with a long lag--in response to the increased intensity of the sun. Their evidence is more believable than a model's output, no matter how complex. In fact, based on my experience, the more complex it is, the less reliable.  

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