Are Polar Bears Doomed or Doing Just Fine? A Case Study in Climate Risk Communication (not!)

Most of us in the climate change space recognize that the communication of climate risk is a critical element of successful action on climate change.  It’s also something we don’t do very well (actually, we’re lousy at it, if by communication we mean influencing others’ perceptions and actions).  There’s a good deal of information available on the subject of communication in this area; see, for example, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.  I was particularly struck by an example I saw this past week –not of good climate risk communication, but of superb climate risk confusion.

It started when I read a story on Public Radio International’s (PRI’s) website about a proposal to use a large-scale supplemental feeding program to save polar bears from extinction.  The PRI story discussed a newly published paper in the Conservation Letters journal, in which the researchers suggesting this unusual feeding program idea had published their proposal.  The proposal suggests, among other management strategies, the need to start planning food airdrops (flying seals?) to counter polar bear starvation resulting from climate change.

I have to admit that I find the idea rather odd; if climate change gets that bad, will we really focus on the survival (outside of zoos) of a single species?  But polar bears have been a powerful symbol in communicating climate change and its potential impacts.  If the authors of the Conservation Letters paper are trying to use the symbolism of polar bears to communicate climate risk, more power to them – right?

(Recognize this image? Did you know it’s not real? You can find this photo on Istockphoto.com with the following note in the photo caption: "This images [sic] is a photoshop design. Polarbear, ice floe, ocean and sky are real, they were just not together in the way they are now.")

(Recognize this image? Did you know it’s not real? You can find this photo on Istockphoto.com with the following note in the photo caption: “This images [sic] is a photoshop design. Polarbear, ice floe, ocean and sky are real, they were just not together in the way they are now.”)

The same day that I read the PRI piece on polar bear food drops, I happened to spot an issue of Pacific Standard magazine in the United Airlines Club room as I was waiting for a flight.  Over a cuddly looking head-shot of a polar bear, the headline blared: How This Became The Fuzzy Face of Climate Change (and Why It Shouldn’t Be).  Still having the image of flying seal meals fresh in my mind, I was intrigued by the headline and the article (by Zac Unger, http://www.zacunger.com/). Unger sets the stage by quoting a polar bear advocate and a local biologist:

“It’s just so sad,” she said, pushing her lips into a long pout. “They all look so skinny that it’s hard to look at them.” A few minutes later, her chair was filled by a biologist with the Manitoba conservation department. “The bears look good,” he mused. “I haven’t seen them this fat in years.”

Unger moves on to discuss competing scientific views of the polar bears’ plight. Interviewing Robert Rockwell (Rocky), a critic of polar bear alarmism (including the work of Steven Amstrup, one of the authors of the Conservation Letters paper mentioned above):

“The Take the 2050 thing, for example,” he said. “That’s just a huge problem,” Rocky was referring to a series of reports, sprawling over more than 400 pages, that Amstrup had written for the U.S. Geological Survey. One single factoid had been catnip to the press, reported and re-reported in every media outlet on Earth. One typical headline read “Scientists: Most Polar Bears Dead by 2050.” Rocky reiterated the ways in which he thought the Heavy Hitters had botched their methodology and made biased assumptions. I had no way of knowing whether Rocky was right, but I had faith in the scientific process to do the heavy lifting that I couldn’t do.  Surely some journal would weed out flimsy numbers and peer reviewers would reject shoddy work, right?  “That’s just it!,” Rocky thundered. “Those USGS papers aren’t science. They’re junk! And they should be thrown out.” Rocky felt that Amstrup and his colleagues had crossed the line from science to advocacy. “If this had been a bird or a fish, I guarantee you it would not have happened this quickly.” . . .  “And what happens if the bears in the Beaufort Sea are not extirpated by 2050?,” he continued. . .  “Will people listen to any of us then?”

This short case study speaks volumes about the challenges of communicating climate risk and the dangers we encounter along the way.  It made me think about an important (and largely missing) piece of the climate change jigsaw puzzle, namely the ability to assess the credibility of wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory climate change risk information on the Internet.  I remind myself that many of us in the field are likely to be familiar with RealClimate.org, a good science website for this; however, RealClimate is not exactly designed for the general public.

Places on the Internet where people can go to try and investigate the credibility of differing opinions range from the open Q&A format of Quora (which can be helpful but exercises no quality control), to the more rigorous StackExchange Q&A format (where you are more likely to get a good answer, but the number of subjects discussed is limited). Another promising start-up in this space is Hypothes.is, launched by Dan Whaley with the objective of developing a system for rating the credibility of online statements and work in real time using a cloud-sourced approach of sorts.

All of these initiatives will hopefully turn into important pieces of the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle, even if they’re not ready to play that role just yet.  The bottom line is that if we can’t come up with ways to help people interpret the meaning of seemingly diametrically opposed views on whether polar bears are doomed or doing just fine, we’re going to lose when it comes to communicating climate risk.

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