March 28, 2014 3:07PM

If People Are Like Polar Bears, We’ll Be Fine

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting in Japan this week to finalize the second part of its latest compendium on climate change.

The first part, the Working Group I report, focused on the physical science of climate change.  The main findings of that report, released last fall, have been widely panned for not telling the truth about how the latest science is stacking up in support of modest rather than alarming climate change.

The second part, making the news this week, is from the IPCC’s Working Group II and focuses on the effects of climate change.

In an interesting piece in a blog hosted by the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico reports that if leaked drafts are to be trusted, the new report will mark a “formal moving on of the debate from the past, futile focus upon "mitigation" to a new debate about resilience and adaptation.”

We can only wonder what took them so long to realize this—something that we have been saying from virtually day one of this whole global warming thing.

That is not to say that the new IPCC report won’t proclaim that a whole lot of bad things are going to happen as a result of climate change. It most assuredly will say that. But, as we last reported, much of that concern is overblown hype.

Here is another example:

In his story on the new IPCC report, Associated Press "climate-change-is-always-worse-than-we-thought" reporter Seth Borenstein starts off with this analogy:

If you think of climate change as a hazard for some far-off polar bears years from now, you're mistaken. That's the message from top climate scientists gathering in Japan this week to assess the impact of global warming.

In fact, they will say, the dangers of a warming Earth are immediate and very human.

“The polar bear is us,” says Patricia Romero Lankao of the federally financed National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., referring to the first species to be listed as threatened by global warming due to melting sea ice.

As coincidence would have it, researchers at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks recently issued a press release summing up their latest research findings on the genetic evolution of polar bears—research that has shown the animals to be a genetically distinct species from brown bears for about 1.2 million years.

Here is how Mathew Cronin, the lead researcher, described the implications of his team’s findings:

“The ramifications are that if the polar bear was an independent species for about 1 million years, it survived previous cold and warm periods,” Cronin said. “This means the polar bear has been an independent lineage a long time through glacial and interglacial and warm periods.”

The last glacial period was at maximum extent about 22,000 years ago, and was preceded by a warm interglacial period about 130,000 years ago. Other warm and cold periods preceded that. Cronin thinks that if polar bears survived previous warm periods in which there was little or no arctic summer sea ice, this should be used in models predicting the species’ response to current climate change.

“It seems logical that if polar bears survived previous warm, ice-free periods, they could survive another. This is of course speculation, but so is predicting they will not survive, as the proponents of the endangered species act listing of polar bears have done.”

Apologies to Borenstein, but it’s even better than this. For six millennia, around 120,000 years ago, the “eemian” period saw July temperatures some 12°F warmer than modern. Dorethe Dahl-Jensen’s work shows not only that, but that the ice thickness across Greenland was only about 1,000 feet thinner than it is now, or 11,000 feet. There’s tons of other evidence showing that the Arctic Ocean was ice-free, or nearly so, at the end of most summers back then.

And the polar bear survived (and prospered)! So it turns out that if indeed the “polar bear is us,” we should make out OK. Even if we, like the polar bear, must rely on adaptation over mitigation.

Seems like the alarmists can’t even get the scare stories right these days!



Cronin, M. A., et al., 2014. "Molecular Phylogeny and SNP Variation of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus), Brown Bears (U. arctos), and Black Bears (U. americanus) Derived from Genome Sequences." Journal of Heredity, doi:10.1093/jhered/est133

Dahl-Jensen, D., et al., 2013. "Eemian Interglacial Reconstructed from a Greenland Folded Ice Core." Nature 489, doi: 10.1038/nature11789.