Wed, Oct 17, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Polarized debate on polar bears

By Juliette Jowit  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Global warming skeptic Bjorn Lomborg has sparked fresh debate about the dangers of increasing temperatures with new claims that the polar bear population is not on the brink of collapse and is more threatened by hunting than by climate change.

In a new book called Cool It, Lomborg says many of the predicted effects of climate change -- from melting icecaps to drought and flood -- are "vastly exaggerated and emotional claims that are simply not founded in data."

Based on this "hype," international leaders are spending too much time and money trying to cut carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, rather than spending cash on policies that would help humans and the environment more effectively -- such as stopping the hunting of polar bears, he argues.

"This does not mean that global warming will not happen, or that it will not predominantly have negative impacts," Lomborg writes. "But it is important to get the facts right: exaggeration will not help us select the right priorities."


His book comes at a charged time for the climate change debate. Last week, a British High Court judge, Justice Barton, ruled that former US vice president Al Gore's Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth was guilty of "alarmism and exaggeration" in making several claims about the impacts of climate change, including the plight of polar bears.

Claims in the film that the animals were drowning because they were being forced to swim greater distances because of disappearing ice were unfounded, the judge said. There was only evidence that four polar bears had drowned and that was because of storms.

The judge did go on to say there was good support for the four main hypotheses of Gore's film: that climate change is mainly caused by human-created emissions; that global temperatures are rising and are likely to continue to rise; that unchecked climate change will cause serious damage; and that governments and individuals could reduce its impact. Last Friday, Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental work.

Lomborg's analysis has in turn been attacked by international polar bear experts, saying that he has used out-of-date statistics to make his case and that he plays down the plight of the world's biggest carnivores.

Lomborg made his name with an earlier book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which claimed fears about man-made climate change were overstated. He followed this up with Global Crises, Global Solutions, in which economists assessed the best ways of spending US$50 billion to improve people's lives, and put tackling global warming low on the list. Environment groups were outraged, but Time magazine listed him among the 100 most influential people in the world.

In his latest book, Lomborg turns to the impacts of climate change, and says the story of the polar bears "encapsulates the problems with many of the other scares -- once you take a look at the supporting data the narrative falls apart."

He claims that in this case, many fears about polar bears being driven to extinction as global warming melts the ice floes -- which they depend on to hunt and wean their cubs -- can be traced back to research published in 2001 by the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It looked at 20 populations of polar bears in the Arctic, a total of about 25,000 bears.

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