Lesley Riddoch: Why Fake News is harming the Arctic

The US has declared Polar Bears to be an endangered species due the the melting of the polar ice cap. Picture: PAAL HERMANSEN/NHPA/Photoshot
The US has declared Polar Bears to be an endangered species due the the melting of the polar ice cap. Picture: PAAL HERMANSEN/NHPA/Photoshot
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Is it time that people – and not polar bears – were the face of the Arctic, asks Lesley Riddoch.

The issue of “Arctic animal porn” was raised at the weekend’s Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, where climate change was the main theme and Inuit people strongly represented. 
For decades, campaigners, documentary makers and photo-journalists have used images of stricken, starving polar bears to sum up everything that’s wrong with our gas-guzzling, global warming planet. There’s no doubt the sight of these powerful animals in distress has prompted many to campaign for change and donate to environmental charities. The only snag is that some of the most emotive images fail to make cast-iron links with climate change.

In December 2017, National Geographic published a video of a young bear on Somerset Island, near Baffin Island, in Canadian Nunavut filmed in August of that year by members of an activist conservation organisation called Sea Legacy.

Soon the world press was full of headlines such as: “‘I filmed with tears rolling down my cheeks’: Heartbreaking footage shows a starving polar bear on its deathbed struggling to walk on iceless land”.

This prompted an immediate but un-reported outcry among Inuit people, High North bloggers and Arctic academics who claimed there was no evidence the starving bear was indeed a “victim” of sea ice loss. One blogger observed that, in August, bears would just have left the sea ice and should therefore be at their fattest. He added: “If sea ice loss due to man-made global warming was the culprit, the landscape would be littered with carcasses.”

Fair point. But still the video circulated.

Susan Crockford, a zoologist and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, also disputed the automatic connection between the terrible state of the bear and climate change, pointing out: “There are at least 11 natural causes of body condition loss for polar bears, including lack of experience hunting, competition from stronger bears, broken or rotting teeth, injuries from fighting, hunting and falls, illnesses (including cancers which cause muscle wastage), thick spring ice (fewer seals to hunt), thick snow over spring ice (seals hard to find) and not enough food for seals, meaning less food for polar bears the following spring.”

Now this may seem like a fuss about nothing. After all, there’s no doubt that sea ice is in decline and that will eventually affect all polar bear habitats. The journalists behind the video were well-motivated climate change activists – but so is Crockford, who has had to endure angry suggestions from not a few green activists that her corrections to their stories suggest she’s in denial about climate change.

The puzzle is that scientifically verifiable facts about climate change and its impact on animal and human life exist in abundance, so why are campaigners still constructing emotionally powerful white lies which may actually weaken belief in man-made climate change when exposed?

As Terence Corcoran of the Canadian Financial Post put it: “We take you now deep out onto the frozen floes of Arctic science and polar bears, where the most dangerous threat to man and bear alike is lurking among the icebergs: junk science.”

Furthermore, the humans most likely to be hurt by inaccurate worldwide scares about imminent species decline in the Arctic are fragile Inuit communities, most of whom rely on hunting to survive. Frozen land for four to six months a year has traditionally meant no easy substitute for animal protein. Reliance on imports from the south weakens self-reliance and the intimate knowledge of the land needed by traditional hunters, who are generally natural conservationists. Ironically, it’s non-Arctic people such as the 19th century whalers and walrus fishermen of Scotland who have killed industrial quantities of both species, prompting near extinctions and long hunting bans. Now non-Arctic campaigners are ready to intervene again – driven by justifiable concerns about animal welfare but also by the belief that all animal populations are falling because of climate change.

The inconvenient truth seems to be that some are and some aren’t. Some areas have declining populations, others don’t. Climate change is having a varied impact but all too often the south is trying to lead with simplistic slogans that hurt only the tiny populations trying to subsist in the most difficult Arctic conditions.

That’s not fair. The anti-seal hunting campaigns of the 1970s by Greenpeace and other campaigning groups did stop commercial sealing but also destroyed the livelihoods of dozens of indigenous Greenlandic communities. Greenpeace apologised to the Inuit in 2014, saying: “Our campaign against commercial sealing did hurt many, both economically and culturally.”

Likewise a 2009 EU ban on seal products, which, according to Nikolas Sellheim, of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, “undoubtedly had a negative effect on indigenous communities in Canada and Greenland”. Indigenous hunts must now follow high animal welfare standards. Who is to control that, and how? And isn’t this exactly the patronising behaviour the Inuit have always criticised? What happens when new markets in Asia open?

A switch of loyalties is already starting. The Greenlandic government was courting Chinese investment with Danish approval until a deal looked close this year, at which point the governments of Denmark and the US sought a veto on security grounds. This enraged Greenlanders and eventually Denmark was forced to come up with the lion’s share of the investment cash itself.

More sensitivity was shown this month when an Inuit-friendly commercial ­fishing ban was signed by the EU and nine ­other nations, closing an area of the Arctic ­larger than the Mediterranean, which has opened up because of climate change. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, which ­represents indigenous communities in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russian Chukotka, was part of the agreement and the rest of the world has agreed that traditional, small-scale fishing activities can continue.

That’s a step in the right, respectful direction.

Of course it’s dangerous to say indigenous people are supremely wise and can never be challenged. But Inuit communities are finally flexing their muscles as custodians of the Arctic, a position which Scots – long airbrushed from control of their own sublime, empty landscapes – must surely support.

Meanwhile, more endangered people and fewer ailing polar bears might put the vital climate change argument on a sounder long-term footing.