The Preacher and the Polar Bear

Only the other day I was trying to digest a mighty sermon in a Presbyterian Church.  It seems the preacher, a learned scholar from Princeton’s Theological Seminary, was worked-up over the plight of the polar bear having to swim long distances across increasing expanses of water due to retreating ice shelves, a grave concern that Presbyterians should take seriously. This concern was mentioned in the context of his having recently seen Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, a movie characterized in some circles as a documentary.  He recommended the movie for all members of his congregation.

While I share the preacher’s concern for the well-being of all of God’s creatures, polar bears would seem to be one of His creatures eminently capable of fending very nicely for themselves.  As I was not all that current on the status of the polar bear, it seemed timely to gather some perspective on the polar bear through the best bear data available.  Such data was handy, but it shared a few strange quirks.

The first quirk was an editorial in the January 2007 Wall Street Journal, a strange place to find any reference to the animal kingdom in the absence of serious monkey business. The editorial suggested that monkey business was on the loose, unsupported by responsible facts.  I read the numbers presented and shared them with the preacher, acknowledging its source. This was probably a mistake.

The second quirk was an article published two years earlier in a professional journal offering actual bear counts from the area along the Western Hudson Bay. It presented evidence that the sub-population of bears in that area had decreased by 250 animals from its 1980s estimate of 1500 animals.

The third quirk is that all concerns are extrapolations and projections based upon estimates of A) the number of polar bears, and B) the polar bears’ habitat.  Of relevance here is that the Hudson Bay area is not typical of the polar bears’ habitat, but is located outside of and is much warmer than the polar bear’s typical habitat much farther to the north.  The polar bears in this area constitute from 3-5% of the bear population, leaving the other 95-97% in much cooler climates. The first red flag is whether it is appropriate to extrapolate from an atypical habitat to the entire habitat, and then make the inferential leap to the population of bears as a whole, a scientifically slippery slope.

Somewhat more compelling data is also readily available, and supports quite a different notion.  One of the earliest estimates of the polar bear population was 5,000 animals in the 1950s.  Because of this number, several nations collaborated to save the polar bear, which may have been endangered at that time.  They put limits on or forbid hunting, and declared the bears, themselves, were in jeopardy.  By the 1980s the population estimate of polar bears had grown to 15,000 animals, a tripling of the population.  Current estimates vary from a low of 20,000 to a high of 38,000 animals.  While these are still just estimates, the protection afforded the bear population has apparently succeeded beyond all imagination.  The governments and the people should all be rejoicing!

But no!  The bears’ habitat is slipping so badly, according to global warming enthusiasts, that panic is the only appropriate response.  “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” said Chicken Little.  An emergency is at hand, and such dire man-made consequences, an inconvenient truth, demands drastic counter-measures before it is too late!  Stop global warming now!  Halt the emission of CO2.  Sign the Kyoto accord.  And while we are at it, hate President Bush for all of the mistakes he has made.  Bush lied!  No WMDs.

In my quest to understand a system, it appears I have entered a political firestorm.  How does it happen that the bear’s habitat has deteriorated so badly over the past fifty years, while the polar bear numbers have increased from 300-600% during the same period of time? If the bear and his “habitat” are as disconnected as this, the environmental train, and all their projections of doom and gloom, must have come totally off the tracks.  With this data-based reality check, I discovered that I had lost most of my interest in the polar bears prospects for survival, and any related concern for his habitat totally vanished from view.

A short time later I was eating breakfast with a grandson in a Perkins Restaurant.  The kids coloring placemat was a maze of stuff to provide entertainment while waiting for eggs.  A careful examination of the placemat showed a poor polar bear with the caption that its habitat was shrinking, and said that the bear was on the endangered species list.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, but this garbage is being planted directly into the mind of a child, a clear instance of environmental propaganda.

As I sit in this coastal Florida Presbyterian church and ponder the rising tide of global warming, I see a congregation of mostly mature folks in their last decade or two of life.  While I am admonished to share concern for polar bears “washing up on the shores of the Hudson Bay”, I believe I have acquired a reasoned perspective.  It is clear enough that the polar bears are doing just fine.  It is the many members of this congregation, weakened in body and spirit, which is more likely the endangered species!

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