The great polar bear irony
For debunkers, Lomborg’s work is a target-rich environment. There is even a Lomborg-errors website, where a Danish biologist catalogs Lomborg’s mistakes and “attempts to document his dishonesty.” Lomborg’s latest work of disinformation, Cool It, isn’t out yet in Europe to be debunked, so I’ll fill the gap for now.
I will start with polar bears for two reasons. First, the nonironic reason: Lomborg starts his book with a chapter on polar bears, presumably because he thinks it’s one of his strongest arguments — it isn’t.
Second, the ironic reason. “Bjorn” means “bear”! Yes, “Bear” Lomborg is misinformed about his namesake. Lomborg himself notes (p. 4):
Paddling 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.
Doubly ironic, then, that the polar bear is doomed thanks to people like Bear Lomborg, who urge inaction. Lomborg says (p. 7) polar bears “may eventually decline, though dramatic declines seem unlikely.” Uh, no. Even the Bush Administration’s own USGS says we’ll lose two-thirds of the world’s current polar bear population by 2050 in a best-case scenario for Arctic ice.
How will the bears survive the loss of their habitat? No problem, says Lomborg, they will evolve backwards (p. 6):
[T]hey will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.
Seriously. Yet, Wikipedia notes:
According to both fossil and DNA evidence, the polar bear diverged from the brown bear roughly 200 thousand years ago; fossils show that between 10 and 20 thousand years ago the polar bear’s molar teeth changed significantly from those of the brown bear.
Doh! Lomborg is giving the bears a few decades to undo tens of thousands of years of evolution. In fact, most experts do not believe the bears can survive the loss of their habitat:
Dr. Andrew Derocher, Chair of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (a group whose work Lomborg cites), says:
No habitat, no seals; no seals, no bears … At the end of the day, the sea ice is disappearing. Take away the habitat and the species follows shortly thereafter (or before).
The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, (a group whose work Lomborg cites), says:
The survival of polar bears as a species is difficult to envisage under conditions of zero summer sea-ice cover.
[G]iven the rapid pace of ecological change in the Arctic, the long generation time, and the highly specialised nature of polar bears, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive as a species if the sea ice disappears completely.
But Lomborg believes by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, “probably we can save about 0.06 bears per year.” Seriously. As we’ll see, Lomborg suffers from an inability to even imagine the possibility of thresholds or tipping points, beyond which irreversible and catastrophic change occur.
There are so many questionable statements in this chapter alone, you could fill a book, or at least a book chapter. From p. 5:
Moreover, it is reported that the global polar-bear population has increased dramatically over the past decades, from about 5000 members in the 1960s to 25,000 today, through stricter hunting regulation.
If I ever say, “it is reported,” please shoot me. (Note to self: Don’t ever say, “it is reported.”) Actually, Lomborg has a source, The New York Times, which also quotes unnamed experts. Well, here is a named expert, Dr. Andrew Derocher again:
The early estimates of polar bear abundance are a guess — there is no data at all for the 1950-60s. Nothing but guesses.
Derocher has an extended comment on this subject, which serves as a complete and utter rebuttal to Lomborg’s whole polar-bear discussion.
Lomborg mocks the notion that polar bears are “today’s canaries in the coal mine” (p. 3). He uses the polar bears to argue that “we hear vastly exaggerated and emotional claims” (p. 6) and “our worry makes us focus on the wrong solutions” (p. 7) because we should be focused on stopping people from shooting bears rather than saving their habitat. For Lomborg, you simply can’t do both. You must pick one, and you must pick the one that is easier to do now — even though failure to save their habitat renders all other solutions pointless.
To paraphrase Lomborg,
… this tale encapsulates the broader problem with his climate-change book: once you look closely at the supporting data, his narrative falls apart.
It is Bear Lomborg who has evolved backwards, back to a time when people didn’t care about future generations.
Get Grist in your inbox