I currently attend University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, where every first year student completes an assignment called "Engaging with Political Difference." The idea of the assignment is to find an op-ed article we disagree with, summarize it it in a values-neutral way, find some common ground with the author, and only then disagree with the position of the author. My essay on an article about polar bears (and subsequently climate change) taught me a lot about how to more effectively engage with people I disagree with:
The op-ed piece I chose for the assignment “Engaging with Political Difference” was Polar bears keep thriving even as global warming alarmists keep pretending they’re dying, authored by Susan Crockford and published in the Canadian-based Financial Post on February 27, 2018.
Crockford’s argument is that polar bears are thriving even amidst declining ice, thus it should no longer be an icon of global warming. She states that thinning ice means more availability of seals to hunt in areas where ice was previously too thick; cites the failure of a 2007 model of future polar bear survival by Steven Amstrup, who is now at an NGO called Polar Bears International; and writes that starvation is historically a leading cause of death for polar bears when she questions the validity of a National Geographic video of a bear that, by all objective accounts, is starving.
On her personal website, Susan Crockford talks about length of experience in the field of zoology and specifically brags she has written for non-scientists, but lists no credentials except “she has a Ph.D.” Although Wikipedia is not a reliable academic source, the Susan J. Crockford page states she is currently an adjunct professor in Anthropology at the University of Victoria and that “she is best known for her blog posts on polar bear biology, which oppose the scientific consensus that polar bears are threatened by ongoing climate change.”The article goes on to state that most of her career has been work on paid contracts; she currently runs the private consulting firm Pacific Identifications Inc.; and that she signed the International Conference on Climate Change’s 2008 Manhattan Declaration which virtually negates human impact on global climate and states global warming has been beneficial throughout history. She has received regular payments from The Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank. Her blogs have been cited by 80% of climate change denying websites as their chief source on polar bears. The American Institute of Biological Sciences states
Notably, as of this writing, Crockford has neither conducted any original research nor published any articles in the peer-reviewed literature on the effects of sea ice on the population dynamics of polar bears. However, she has published notes and “briefings” through a conservative think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), and is described by them as “an expert on polar bear evolution (Harve et. al 2018).
In a New York Times article on the controversy surrounding this op-ed piece, Erica Goode stated “Dr. Crockford has published some peer-reviewed articles that touch on polar bears. She has also published reports and articles that have not been peer-reviewed, like those through the Global Warming Policy Foundation.” Although sources vary in her reputation, it is reasonable to conclude that Susan Crockford is a for-hire scientist who has written more blogs than peer-reviewed articles. Furthermore, the op-ed article being discussed was published by Financial Post, a conservative Canadian publication which, by its name, is obviously not geared on academia or science.
While Crockford and I disagree on almost everything, there are a few facts we can agree on. She states, “more than 15,000 polar bears have not disappeared since 2005.” This very confusing sentence is true, since there are somewhere between 22,000 and 31,000 polar bears alive today. It is also true that the polar bear’s global numbers have been basically stable since 2006. I agree with her that Ian Stirling reported about spring sea ice becoming so thick that polar bears cannot hunt seals, and that has been reported in various journals; I also agree with her that science has become political. I agree with her when she states studies show polar bears are less weight that in the 1980s.
The most frustrating part of Crockford's ideas was her academic incompetence. Although she holds a doctorate in science, this “scientific” article was written in a financial publication with a complete lack of references; the closest she came was very vaguely mentioning two reports that she then invalidated. The world of Polar Bear/Arctic science is a very specific expertise. It is a completely different world, with different terminology; it takes a bit of reading to even conceptualize the reality that ice is to polar bears what ground is to humans.
Another disagreement I had with Crockford was about the current stabilization of the polar bear population. According to Polar Bear Specialist Group, there are nineteen subpopulations, and eleven of those regions—more than half—are data deficient/unknown. Polar bears live in five countries—Canada, Denmark, Norway, the USSR, and the U.S.—in some of the most remote, anti-human conditions on the planet. It is my un-scientifically proven, lay belief that as ice continues to melt, polar bear populations are not actually stabilizing. Rather, polar bears are migrating to different parts of the regions where ice is more conducive to mating and fishing, as well as spending much more time on land. I believe there is a polar bear migration happening to places where we are currently able to track them, and while the overall population is declining in remote areas we cannot track, this migration is skewing the decline. Since this is unprovable, any reputable scientist with integrity can’t make this claim publicly.
Finally, I disagree that polar bears are a symbol of global warming. Crockford states “the polar bear’s resilience should have meant the end of its use as a cherished icon of global warming doom, but it didn’t. The alarmism is not going away without a struggle.” I do think that the polar bear is a resilient species—it lives in an environment hostile to most living organisms! —but that does not mean it can survive with more ice loss with each passing year. Since 2008 a million more square kilometers of summer sea ice (the way scientists measure) has been lost. That is roughly the size of Egypt! More ice loss means more swimming, which takes up much more energy than walking, which means a lower weight and a greater chance of starvation. I side with Erica Goode’s article that “In effect, many scientists say, the bears have been co-opted by climate denialists, and in an article published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, 14 prominent researchers argue that denialist blogs with wide followings are using the bears to spread misinformation about the causes and consequences of climate change.”
Two of my earliest memories were of polar bears. The first was the Coca-Cola Christmas commercial with a parent polar bear and two cubs. I remember seeing how big and cold and stark the landscape was, and how alone they were. When I went to the zoo for the first time a few months later, I saw a polar bear in real life and was absolutely enraptured; I learned that the bears can change the color of their hair to blend in with surroundings. Looking back, I can see how as a gay boy in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, the polar bear was my spirit animal. I was isolated, lived in hostile conditions, and did everything I could to blend into my surroundings and survive. I have not had a car for a while now, and have made other difficult choices to reduce my carbon footprint, because I like to think that I am making a difference for polar bears. I want to adopt a child when I finish school and get on my feet in the social world field, and I want to take them to Churchill, Canada, to see the bears in their natural habitat.
Because I have been following the story of the polar bear my entire life, I thought I knew a lot about the policy issues of global warming and environmental conservation surrounding the species. However, one thing I learned was that Polar Bears International accepts donations from Exchange Petroleum, which seems highly lacking in integrity when carbon emissions is the greatest threat to ice loss and subsequent polar bear decline. Through this writing assignment, I learned some important tools, like how to look up an author and see whether they are credible/biased, as well as how to find out whether a journal is conservative or liberal in its leanings. I read many articles from both conservative and liberal blogs and journals, and I feel like I learned how to seek the truth just a little bit better than I knew how to before.
Initially, because I am susceptible to anything I read in print, it took several readings and critical thinking to really remember where I stood. In my critical thinking, I got to see just how hard it is to prove that polar bear populations are declining; it’s impossible. The realization that I am just as opinionated as she is, and I see things with my own bias, can help me discuss this issue with someone who does not agree with me. I can ask them questions about why they think the way they do, find common ground, and then talk about the limited information I have and how it has informed my opinion. I think being transparent about how my life experience helped me relate to the polar bear in a visceral and emotional way, so I can never fully see the issue of global warming and polar bear endangerment objectively, is a way of disarming an argument and gaining a discussion.