A video made by mining magnate Gina Rinehart to mark the 125th anniversary of her Perth alma mater, St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, reveals much about the opinions of Australia’s richest woman.
In the video, which was posted to Mrs Rinehart’s personal website, she warned against “propaganda” taught in schools, giving the example of former US vice president Al Gore’s film on the subject of climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.
“I’d heard that senior school students in a previous headmistress’s time, were having to watch … An Inconvenient Truth. Catchy title, but sadly short on delivery as far as truth is concerned, e.g. the sad loss of polar bears, when actually their numbers have increased,” Mrs Rinehart said.
Have polar bear numbers increased? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Mrs Rinehart’s claim doesn’t check out.
Reports on populations of polar bears produced by leading experts do not provide a time series for global populations of the species.
Rather, they group polar bears into 19 subpopulations ringed around the Arctic circle.
For a substantial number of these subpopulations, the short and long term trends in population growth or decline are unknown, and for four of them, there is no data to even make an estimate on the size of population.
Over the long term, the data shows two subpopulations have “very likely” decreased, and one has “likely” decreased — the other 16 do not have enough data to make a determination.
Over the short term, four are likely stable, two have likely increased and three have likely decreased, with the remaining 10 being data deficient.
Experts agreed that this lack of data makes it difficult to ascertain whether the global population of polar bears has increased or decreased over time.
All agreed, however, that sea ice is crucial for polar bear survival, and that less of it is a threat to the future of the species.
Who has the data?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a union comprised of over 1,400 “States and government agencies, NGOs large and small, Indigenous Peoples’ organisations, scientific and academic institutions and business associations,” which work together “in a combined effort to conserve nature and accelerate the transition to sustainable development”.
The union’s Species Survival Commission is described as “a science-based network of volunteer experts working together in more than 160 Specialist Groups, Red List Authorities and Task Forces”.
One of these specialist groups is the Polar Bear Specialist Group, which “has a mission to coordinate, synthesize, and distribute scientific information necessary to guide the long-term viability of polar bears and their habitats”.
The group is the formal scientific advisory body to the five countries with Arctic territories that signed a 1973 agreement on the conservation of polar bears. Its responsibilities include “an annual review and interpretation of all available information on subpopulation abundance, status, and trend”.
Members of the group are from different countries, and have many different academic and organisational affiliations, but meet periodically to produce status reports on polar bear populations, including population estimates.
Melanie Lancaster, a senior specialist in Arctic species for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program, told Fact Check the group is considered to be the scientific authority on polar bears, and that it “is therefore made up of most of the credible polar bear biologists in the world”.
Indeed, Fact Check could find few instances of corresponding authors of published peer-reviewed studies who were not affiliated with the PBSG in some way.
Andrew Derocher, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and a member of the group, told Fact Check there weren’t any alternatives to the data produced by the specialist group.
“If you have the PBSG numbers, that is as good as it gets,” he said.
To understand polar bears and the threat to their survival, it is first necessary to understand how they live.
Polar bears (ursus maritimus) live “throughout the ice-covered waters of the circumpolar Arctic”.
Professor Derocher told Fact Check that polar bears are known to eat a variety of different species of animal, but that two types of seals were their “bread and butter”.
“Polar bears are olfactory and visual predators and ringed seals and bearded seals are their main prey,” he said.
“Both seal species are found across the Arctic and similar to polar bears, they only exist where sea ice exists for long enough in a year for them to complete their life cycles.”
The seals cut holes in the ice through which they surface to breathe. Polar bears capture the seals by lying in wait and ambushing them when they surface.
As noted by conservation group Polar Bears International, the bears “follow the changing ice in search of their prey. Polar bears in regions with less sea ice and fewer seals may travel farther and have longer fasting periods.”
The source of the claim
In the 2006 feature film, An Inconvenient Truth, former US vice president Al Gore makes the case for action on climate change.
In relation to polar bears, Mr Gore does not directly make reference to decreasing numbers. Rather, he references the species in relation to climate change’s effect on their habitat:
“So there is a faster build-up of heat here at the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean, and the Arctic generally, than anywhere else on the planet. That’s not good for creatures like polar bears who depend on the ice.
“A new scientific study shows that for the first time they’re finding polar bears that have actually drowned, swimming long distances, up to 60 miles to find the ice.”
Fact Check contacted Mrs Rinehart’s office to ask for the source of her claim.
The press release quotes Susan Crockford, described as a “Canadian wildlife expert,” who said:
“In 2005, the official global polar bear estimate was about 22,500.
“Since 2005, however, the estimated global polar bear population has risen by more than 30 per cent to about 30,000 bears, far and away the highest estimate in more than 50 years.
“A growing number of observational studies have documented that polar bears are thriving, despite shrinking summer sea ice.
“By September 2007 sea ice extent was about 43 per cent less than it had been in 1979 — a decline not expected until mid-century, and every year after was almost as low, or lower.”
The spokesman also provided Fact Check with a 2019 article from the Foundation for Economic Education, which said:
“New estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature show a mid-point estimate of 26,500 (range: 22,000 to 31,000) in 2015 … zoologist Susan J. Crockford says updates to IUCN data put the new global mid-point estimate at more than 30,000.
“Even accepting the lower figure, the estimate is the highest since the polar bear became internationally protected in 1973.”
The article links to a report authored by Dr Crockford, which uses figures published by the PBSG as its base but also includes additional figures estimated by Dr Crockford.
Dr Crockford has in the past expressed the view that the burning of fossil fuels does not have an adverse effect on the warming of the planet.
About the data
The PBSG meets semi-regularly and produces reports on the state of polar bears, including population estimates and assessments of population stability.
Its latest Status Report on the World’s Polar Bear Subpopulations, dated July 2021, which it provided to Fact Check, cites an estimate for polar bear abundance of around 26,000 bears. The lower bound of the 95 per cent confidence interval for this estimation is 22,000, and the higher bound is 31,000.
The global numbers have been published because “the PBSG recognizes there is public interest in the abundance of the global polar bear population”.
The report notes a number of previous estimates which are smaller than the current estimate. But it does not present these estimates as a consistent time series.
It says some estimates remain missing, outdated or include large uncertainty and adjustments to the reported global estimate will continue as new information becomes available.
“Like previous ranges, these numbers must be interpreted with caution,” it says.
Steven Amstrup, the chief scientist for Polar Bears International and a member of the specialist group, told Fact Check that the method that Dr Crockford has used was not the correct way to analyse the group’s data.
“That total number presented by the PBSG has been increased in recent years because we have learned that some of our old estimates in the poorly documented areas may have been too low. This doesn’t mean those populations have grown, but rather that the initial estimates were simply too small,” he told Fact Check in an email.
The bears do not form a single uniform nomadic population. Rather, scientists in the specialist group have divided the bears into 19 geographically distributed subpopulations, which exist across the territory of five nations: the US (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway.
“The boundaries of subpopulations are intended to identify discontinuities to movement and are based on the best available scientific data,” the report said.
The report contains population estimates for each of the 19 subpopulations, as well as short-term (approximately one polar bear generation) and long-term (greater than two polar bear generations) subpopulation trends.
These estimates and trends are based on different research papers taken over a number of years. For example, estimates for the Viscount Sound subpopulation were taken from data collected in 1992, while estimates for the Gulf of Boothia were taken from data collected in 2017.
There are four subpopulations where estimates are unknown — Arctic Basin, East Greenland, Kara Sea and Laptev Sea.
The subpopulation trends are described as anywhere from declining, to stable, to increasing. These designations are prefixed with either “likely” or “very likely”.
There is also a designation for subpopulations where there is not enough scientific information to make a determination, which are referred to as “data deficient”.
What does the data say?
Over the long-term, the PBSG has determined that there are two subpopulations with smaller estimated populations which are designated as very likely decreased, and one that is designated likely decreased.
The other 16 are designated as data deficient.
For short-term estimates, four of the larger subpopulations have been designated likely stable, three smaller ones are likely decreasing and two further smaller ones are designated likely increasing.
Over half of the subpopulations (ten) are data deficient.
What do the experts say?
Professor Derocher told Fact Check: “There are far too many populations (most of Russia) that lack good estimates to make a global statement on polar bear trends.”
“With 19 populations across the Arctic, there is no “one-size fits all” when it comes to changes in abundance over time. Factors like continental shelf area, prey diversity, and sea ice loss rates all factor into the challenges facing a population, ” he said.
Jon Aars, a senior polar bear scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute, who is also part of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, said that among the 19 subpopulations “in some, the number of bears increases, in some it declines, for many we do not know.”
“And thus we do not know if the total is lower or higher than earlier,” he said.
Dr Lancaster from the WWF said Mrs Rinehart’s statement is “not correct”, and that “the Arctic is experiencing the effects of climate change at different rates, and so too, are polar bears”.
She told Fact Check in an email:
“There are a few places in the Arctic where polar bear subpopulations are increasing. This is because they are recovering from historic over-harvest (mostly recreational) in some places (e.g., the Barents Sea, in Norway/Russia). or because they are benefiting temporarily from climate-change-caused sea ice loss. As very thick ice becomes thinner, the ocean becomes more productive, and bears have more food. This will be a temporary situation.”
This was a statement which Dr Amstrup agreed with.
“There is basically a bell-shaped curve of polar bear habitat quality,” he said, noting that he had long predicted improvements in polar bear numbers in the more northerly subpopulations, where the ice is thicker for longer.
“Too much thick ice for too long is not good habitat, just as is too little ice for too long. The ideal is in the middle between these two extremes. As the world continues to warm, each area currently supporting polar bears moves along this curve from one side to the other with peak numbers being someplace in the middle. In the far north, warming can result in transient improvement, but the critical thing is that without greenhouse gas mitigation, that improvement can only be transient as habitat declines on the other side of the curve.”
Dr Amstrup said there was “no evidence that global numbers of polar bears have increased”.
This was echoed by Professor Derocher who said: “The statement made by Mrs Rinehart lacks any scientific credibility and is of the sort commonly espoused by climate change deniers. The root of it has no foundation in science.”
“We know that some populations are stable, some have declined, and some have increased but the critical issue is the period of concern. Increases in abundance occurred after overharvest was regulated (largely after 1973) but the data supporting these increases are challenging to know as we didn’t have population estimates. We have clear evidence of three populations in decline and these declines are associated with sea ice loss.”
All experts spoken to by Fact Check agreed that the fate of polar bears was tied to the availability of sea ice in the Arctic, and that climate change, unmitigated, would continue to see that availability decline.
“The fact that some areas don’t yet show negative impacts of ice loss gives us hope we can halt global warming in time to save polar bears over much of their current range,” Dr Amstrup said.
“But the evidence is clear that if we don’t halt warming, the impacts we are currently seeing, in the more southerly populations and in the polar basin where sea ice over shallow waters disappears first, will come to all subpopulations. After all, their habitat is literally melting as temperatures rise. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter what the global population size is now, when sea ice is not available for long enough polar bears will not persist.”
Principal researcher: Online Editor Matt Martino
Editor’s note (October 27, 2021): A previous version of this article stated that the video in which the claim was made was leaked to the media. The video was posted to Mrs Rinehart’s personal website. This does not change our verdict.
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