As Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders unite in a silent "prayer for the planet" aboard a cruise ship amid icebergs on the west coast of Greenland, we have the perennial cuddly polar bear warning that "two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone by the middle of the century." [BBC]
No "might" or "could." No "models predict." Categorically, it will happen. This "grim news" is intended as a "call to action," so there can be no room for doubt or objective examination of facts — only emotive threats. The Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned the US to list the polar bear as an endangered species and, therefore, to take steps to protect its environment, is explicit: "Our hope lies in a rapid response, including both deep and immediate carbon dioxide reductions and a full-court press on other greenhouse pollutants."
Let us briefly remind ourselves of the facts:
1. The new NOAA study† makes the following prediction:
"Based on the selection of a subset models that closely simulate observed regional ice concentrations for 1979–1999, we find considerable evidence for loss of sea ice area of greater than 40% by 2050 in summer for the marginal seas of the Arctic basin... With less confidence, we find that the Bering, Okhotsk and Barents Seas have a similar 40% loss of sea ice area by 2050 in winter."2. The US Geological Survey claiming that this predicted loss of summer Arctic ice means no bears will be able to live there within fifty years is based on estimated vital rates whose precision was "low" and a study that "was short in duration relative to the life history of polar bears."
3. Actual study of polar bear populations has revealed that only two of the bear's populations are decreasing — and they are in areas where air temperatures have actually fallen, while in areas where air temperatures have risen, populations are growing.
4. Polar bears evidently managed to survive five centuries of warm weather during the relatively recent Medieval Warm Period (~800-1300 AD).
Even if the ice were to melt and even if this were to result in fewer polar bears, one is still left asking to what extent anything we have done has exacerbated this situation and whether anything we now do could alter this eventual outcome. At least the religious leaders appear to have shown a little more wisdom and humility than the environmentalists and politicians limiting their prayer to "A recognition that we have spoiled the earth and we now need to rectify this by changing our lifestyles," and stopping short of asking God to reverse the thaw for fear that "Such a request might have invited comparisons with the legendary vain attempt by 11th century English King Canute to stop the rising tide." [As if anyone would think to make that comparison!]
† The NOAA, you may recall, is the body responsible for skewing the global temperature data to give the appearance of half a degree warming since 1960.