Polar bears, climate change, and the derailing power of appeals to emotion

Introduction:

Polar bears are often depicted as lovable mascots for the arctic (Fig 1) and horribly threatened by climate change.  They may be lovable.  And they may be threatened by climate change.  But the fact that we don’t like dead polar bear babies shouldn’t be used as evidence of climate change.  (There is plenty of good evidence of that.)  Claiming that dead polar bears are bad, so climate change must be true is an appeal to emotion.  And this is a bad argument.

Old-timey sketch of the arctic frontier depicting seal beating and a polar bear. From a Scienceosaurus.com article on polar bears, climate change, and logical fallacies.
Fig 1: Old-timey sketch of the arctic frontier depicting seal beating and a polar bear.

Background:

Polar bears and sea ice:

Why do polar bears even need the sea ice in the first place?  To hunt.  Polar bears have big appetites, and there aren’t enough land animals in the arctic for them to live on.  Additionally, although polar bears are good swimmers, they can’t catch their food (they mainly eat seals) in the open ocean.  Instead, they are forced to ambush seals from floating sea ice.

Sea ice statistics:

Since we first started looking at Earth’s poles from space in 1978, we’ve observed a steady decrease in the extent of Arctic sea ice (Stroeve et al., 2012; Fig 2).  This is not a complicated or rationally-arguable point.  It’s simply an observation.  Furthermore, this trend seems to be accelerating in the face of modern climate change (Stroeve et al., 2012).  The average reduction in arctic sea ice cover for the month of September from 1979 to 2011 is -12.9 ± 1.47% per decade (ibid).  This equates to an overall reduction of about 30%.  Obviously, this is a significant loss.  For comparison, 30% of a human body equates to most of your torso!

Plot of monthly ice extent for November from 1979 to 2017. Used by Scienceosaurus.com
Fig 2: Plot of monthly ice extent for November from 1979 to 2017. From NSIDC (http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/).

Why can’t polar bears just learn to live on land?

Another good question.  The answer is that some have been forced to try, but they suck at it.  They have been sculpted by evolution to be able to survive in the very specific conditions of the Arctic.  Thus, they are poorly suited to life in other environments.  When researchers have observed polar bears eating terrestrial food, the bears have been unhealthy.  This suggests that these food sources are insufficient for replacing or supplementing their traditional diets (Rode et al., 2015).  Furthermore, if polar bears start using terrestrial food sources, this will likely add unsustainable competition to the ecosystem—it’s not as though there is unused food just lying around.

Polar bear population estimates and projections:

It doesn’t take a genius to see that reducing sea ice is, or will be, bad for polar bears.  But what does research tell us and why is this simple fact so contentious?

The vast majority of scientific projections for polar bear populations estimate critical losses in the near future (e.g. Lunn et al., 2016; Regehr et al., 2016).  One such study estimates that a population reduction of >30% over three generations is highly probable (Regehr et al., 2016).

So, we know polar bears need sea ice and we know sea ice is diminishing.  Why do people doubt that climate change is, and will continue to be, bad for polar bears?  Here are three reasons.

First off, polar bears don’t exactly line up to be counted.  So, their populations will always be estimates.  Sadly, this fact alone is sufficient for outright dismissal for many people who want to construct arguments for disregarding science.

Second, many groups of polar bears are actually increasing in population.  However, this is a signature of rebounding numbers from previous over-hunting and other mismanagement (Aars et al., 2017).  This rebound is happening despite the insidious, ever-increasing pressure from sea-ice loss.  This is not evidence against the relationship between polar bears and sea ice.

Third, some people are sceptical that climate change threatens polar bears because they have only ever been confronted with appeals to emotion on this subject.  Thus, they rightly reject these fallacious and annoying arguments.

Polar bears as appeals to emotion:

Polar bears are widely recognised as symbols of the Arctic (Fig 1).  Plus, polar bears are wild animals.  Thus, they have no science and their lives are a series of desperate attempts at staving off tragedy.  Furthermore, they’re often cute.  So they provide ample opportunity for appeals to emotion.

What are appeals to emotion?

An appeal to emotion is a type of illogical argument (a logical fallacy).  This poor reasoning is committed when an attempt is made to establish the truth of a position based on emotion, rather than actual reasoning.

A general form of this fallacy is: X is true, if it weren’t, all the sad and bad would happen!  (“Wont somebody think of the children” is an appeal to emotion.)

It’s important to point out that it isn’t illogical to include emotional factors in your reasoning.  (We should think of the children, after all.)  However, emotional appeals shouldn’t be the only factors we consider and they certainly shouldn’t be the foundation of any arguments.

An example:

Recently, a video of a starving and/or otherwise sick and dying polar bear has been making the rounds.  Unfortunately, this video has been erroneously billed as evidence of climate change killing all the poor polar bears.  When the emotional plea being made is disregarded, it becomes obvious that, since polar bears aren’t immortal, they die all the time.  One animal’s plight captured on video isn’t evidence of anything except how much better our lives are with science and medicine and the bounty of nutritious, genetically-modified crops.

Problems (why appeals to emotion are shitty):

Scienceosaurus.com image illustrating the uselessness of appeals to emotion.
Fig 3: A polar-bearish example of how childish and useless appeals to emotion are. Evil polar bear image (right) is from AWeith (CC 4.0).

Appeals to emotion are not logical.  Instead, they are manipulative.  The world would be a better place if we all strove to supply cogent premises that rationally support our conclusions.

The inadequacy of appeals to emotion is easily illustrated by revealing the malleability of these arguments.  They can be sculpted to support any conclusion.  Thus, they are illogical, exhortative, often preachy wastes of time.  Figure 3 provides an example of this.

Conclusion:

Climate change is real.  Sea ice is diminishing.  This is bad for polar bears.

However, appeals to emotion are bad arguments that discredit these facts.  We shouldn’t use cute polar bear babies to manipulate other people into thinking climate change is actual.  When we try to manipulate others with such illogical appeals to emotion, we often only succeed in discrediting our own argument and forcing people to commit even more to their biases and preconceived notions.  However, it is fine to add the plight of polar bears, or anything else, to otherwise rational arguments when these difficulties are relevant.

References:

Aars, J., Marques, T. A., Lone, K., Andersen, M., Wiig, Ø., Bardalen Fløystad, I. M., … & Buckland, S. T. (2017). The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research, 36(1), 1374125. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Lunn, N. J., Servanty, S., Regehr, E. V., Converse, S. J., Richardson, E., & Stirling, I. (2016). Demography of an apex predator at the edge of its range: impacts of changing sea ice on polar bears in Hudson Bay. Ecological Applications, 26(5), 1302-1320. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/15-1256/full

Regehr, E. V., Laidre, K. L., Akçakaya, H. R., Amstrup, S. C., Atwood, T. C., Lunn, N. J., … & Wiig, Ø. (2016). Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology letters, 12(12), 20160556. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/12/20160556

Rode, K. D., Robbins, C. T., Nelson, L., & Amstrup, S. C. (2015). Can polar bears use terrestrial foods to offset lost ice‐based hunting opportunities?. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13(3), 138-145.

Stroeve, J. C., Kattsov, V., Barrett, A., Serreze, M., Pavlova, T., Holland, M., & Meier, W. N. (2012). Trends in Arctic sea ice extent from CMIP5, CMIP3 and observations. Geophysical Research Letters, 39(16). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2012GL052676/full 

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.