How Attenborough’s arctic claims cause eco angst and activism

How Attenborough’s arctic claims cause eco angst and activism

by Susan Crockford
article from Wednesday 29, January, 2020

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH is a highly respected and influential broadcaster. He is undoubtedly a British national treasure – but with an international following. It is therefore all the more vital that the scripts he uses are evidence-based and accurate, for if they are not then they are no more than propaganda pushing judgements and opinions that cannot be verified – or are even contrary to the facts.

With the help of the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF) I have produced a video that shows how the increasing climate angst felt by many young people around the world started with Attenborough’s films that blamed starving polar bears on human-caused global warming. The parents and teachers of these youngsters trusted Attenborough’s BBC productions to be accurate portrayals of the effects of climate change but that trust has been betrayed.

David Attenborough’s claims that ‘the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon’ have captured international media attention but it is now apparent he has failed to ensure that the scripts he reads for his Arctic documentaries and the messages they contain are true reflections of the natural world.

Misleading narratives about starving polar bears and fabricated stories of dying walrus, used to support an escalating message of doom about the Arctic, are not supported by facts.

Attenborough did not verify any facts contained in the scripts he was paid to narrate and passed along misinformation to naïve viewers, including many young children.

One of these children was Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who said she was shown images of starving polar bears in school when she was 8 or 9 years old. The timing and nature of the material suggests the film she saw was Attenborough’s ‘On Thin Ice’ documentary from the ‘Frozen Planet’ series released in 2011.

David Attenborough bears the brunt of responsibility for the recent epidemic of ‘eco-anxiety’ among children and young adults. Much of their misguidedly negative sense of how Arctic animals are fairing and their bleak outlook on the world come from the heart-wrenching but unverified stories found in Attenborough’s documentaries.

It is the responsibility of teachers and parents to reassure these worried youngsters that polar bears and walrus are not suffering because of sea ice loss blamed on climate change. Children need to be told the truth: that whatever scary stories some biologists come up with about what might happen in the future, Arctic species have demonstrated that they are much more resilient to changes in sea ice than Attenborough’s films suggest.

Dr Susan Crockford is a Canadian zoologist, author, and blogger specialising in Holocene mammals. From 2004 to 2019 she was an adjunct professor in Anthropology at the University of Victoria.


Watch: Attenborough's Arctic Betrayal (13 min)

NOTES & REFERENCES: The GWPF is sending copies of this video to all head teachers of UK schools together with a letter, that includes the following verifiable facts, which Attenborough and/or his advisors would have found – had they looked: 

  • Global polar bear numbers have not declined since 2007 even though summer sea ice dropped precipitously at that time to a level about 40% less than 1979, indicating this species is not as sensitive to changes in sea ice habitat as experts had assumed.[1] 
  • While the IUCN Red List classified the polar bear as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction, this was based solely on computer predictions of what might happen to polar bear numbers in the future, not on current population size: moreover, the 2015 assessment suggested there was only about a 70% chance that numbers would decline by 30% or more by 2050 but no chance of extinction if summer sea ice continued to decline steadily until mid-century.[2] 
  • Most of the world’s polar bears live in Canada, where the species is not considered threatened (or vulnerable) but is listed in the lesser category of ‘special concern’ which it has had since 1991.[3] 
  • Significant declines in polar bear body condition, litter size, and cub survival occurred in Western Hudson Bay for no apparent reason well before sea ice conditions changed on Hudson Bay – and then dropped again when summer ice cover declined by 3 weeks: polar bear specialists emphasize the second drop and keep silent on the first, even though it is well documented in the peer-viewed scientific literature.[4] 
  • Only one out of six Arctic seal species are included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species because there is no evidence they have been harmed by recent declines in sea ice.[5]  
  • The Pacific walrus is similarly not included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species because there is no evidence they have been harmed by recent declines in sea ice.[6]
  • In 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service refused to list the Pacific walrus as ‘threatened’ on the Endangered Species List because their research revealed walrus populations were high, had not been harmed by recent sea ice loss, and had shown flexibility in adapting to sea ice change.[7] 
  • Falling off cliffs and hauling up on Arctic beaches in enormous numbers in summer or fall are natural phenomena in Pacific walrus that are not exclusively associated with recent sea ice loss.[8] 

 

[1] IUCN Red List Assessment in 2015 put the global population at 22,000-
31,000 https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22823/14871490#assessment- information compared to 20,000-25,000 in 2005, see IUCN PBSG Meeting #14, 20- 24 June 2005 http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/meetings/press-releases/14-Seattle.html; For summer sea ice decline see http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/1999/10/Sep_monthly_extents13yr.png

 

[2] IUCN Red List Assessment 2015 Supplemental Information pp.
16, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22823/14871490#assessment-information; See also Regehr et al. (2016), Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology Letters12:
20160556, http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/12/20160556
 

[3] COSEWIC (2018), Assessment and Status Report of the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) in Canada 2018. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate- change/services/species-risk-public-registry/cosewic-assessments-status- reports/polar-bear-2018.html and https://wildlife-species.canada.ca/species-risk- registry/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=167
 

[4] Derocher, A.E. and Stirling, I. (1992)The population dynamics of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. pg. 1150-1159 in D. R. McCullough and R. H. Barrett, eds. Wildlife 2001: Populations. Elsevier Sci. Publ., London, UK; Derocher, A.E., and Stirling, I. (1995a), Estimation of polar bear population size and survival in western Hudson Bay. Journal of Wildlife Management 59: 215-221; Derocher, A.E. and Stirling, I. (1995b), Temporal variation in reproduction and body mass of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73: 1657-1665; Derocher, A.E., and Stirling, I. (1996), Aspects of survival in juvenile polar bears. Canadian Journal of Zoology 74: 1246-1252; Ramsay, M.A. and Stirling, I. (1988), Reproductive biology and ecology of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Zoology London 214:601-624; Stirling, I. and Lunn, N.J. (1997), Environmental fluctuations in arctic marine ecosystems as reflected by variability in reproduction of polar bears and ringed seals. Ecology of Arctic Environments (eds S. J. Woodin and and M. Marquiss), pp 167- 181. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
 

[5] Harp seal, http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T41671A45231087.en;
Bearded seal, http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/8010/0;
Ringed seal, http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/61382318/0;
Ribbon seal, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/41670/45230946;
Spotted seal, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/17023/45229806;
Hooded seal, the exception, is listed as ‘vulnerable’ primarily because of an inexplicable decline in the East Greenland (‘West Ice’)
population https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/6204/45225150#assessment- information


[6] Pacific walrus, http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/61963499/0


[7] US Fish and Wildlife Service (2017). Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; 12-month findings on petitions to list 25 species as endangered or threatened. Federal Register 82: 46618-46645; MacCracken et al. (2017). Final Species Status Assessment for the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), May 2017 (Version 1.0). US Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK; See also https://www.fws.gov/news/ShowNews.cfm?ref=after-comprehensive-review- service-determines-pacific-walrus-does-not-&_ID=36158


[8] Crockford, S.J. (2014), On the Beach: Walrus Haulouts are Nothing New. Global Warming Policy Foundation Briefing Paper 11. http://www.thegwpf.org/susan- crockford-on-the-beach-2/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwaAwsS2OOY; Fischbach et al. (2016),Pacific walrus coastal haulout database, 1852–2016— Background report: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2016–1108. http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/ofr20161108; Lowry, L. (1985),“Pacific Walrus – Boom or Bust?” Alaska Fish & Game Magazine July/August: 2-5, http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/home/library/pdfs/wildlife/research_pdfs/pacific_ walrus_boom_bust.pdf; See also this US Fish & Wildlife video from 1994 https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2m72ze

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