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Science, Polar Bears, and the "Coming Ice Age" Story

Those who do not believe the Earth is warming have promoted the “Global Cooling” and the “Coming Ice Age” stories to discredit the scientific evidence. George Will in “Can Bears Survive Ice Age and Global Warming?” 1 champions these stories but his article has a number of flaws- besides the awkward title. How can you trust science, he asks, when in the 1970s the scientists were predicting the coming of a new Ice Age  but now scientists claim that the Earth is warming. To prove his point, George will quoted an article in the February 1973 Science Digest that said “the world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age”. Case closed. 

 Well, perhaps not.  The Science Digest published excerpts of articles from other sources. Like in the game of “Gossip”, George Will quotes Science Digest who quotes the Christian Science Monitor who quotes ….   Clearly, the world’s climatologists had not agreed  as there is an article in the same issue that quotes  Dr. Cesare Emiliani, a noted American geologist who warned, “If the present climate balance is not maintained, we may soon be confronted by runaway glaciation or runaway deglaciation.”  Why would Mr. Will quote one article and ignore the other?

Mr. Will’s story is “Not true.” also says climatologist Thomas C. Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C..  To prove it, he and his colleagues surveyed all major journal papers on climatology published between 1965 and 1979.   They report that in that time period “only seven articles predicted that the global average temperature would continue to cool, 44 journal papers indicated that the average temperature would rise and 20 were neutral or made no climate predictions.” 2 Mr. Will’s quote is clearly wrong but he has persisted in using it. Ignorance is no excuse as John Fleck, one of the authors of the survey, reported he sent Mr. Will an advance copy of the article in May of 2008.

The bears entered into this story because the Department of Interior had just put the polar bear on the threatened species list. That was simply a decision made by scientists who study bears and climate. The polar bear is uniquely adapted to live and hunt on sea ice and there is ample evidence that the polar sea ice is disappearing.3 Satellite photos of the Artic region taken in 1979 and in 2003 clearly show that 30% of the sea ice has disappeared. But to George Will, this was a conspiracy between scientists, litigious environmentalists, federal judges and government officials to control everything in his life.  Using polar bears as a lever, he claims, the Endangered Species Act could be used to prohibit the building of a power plant in Arizona, driving a SUV, or leaving your cell phone charger plugged in overnight. Well, the bears are a threatened species, not an endangered species, and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne pointed out that the Endangered Species Act could not be used to limit greenhouse gases. However, George Will apparently believes in the power of exaggeration and the “slippery slope” theory.

 (1)  http://www.tulsaworld.com/TWPDFs/2008/Final/W_052308_A_18.

 (2)  Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, September 2008

 (3)  See, for instance, the before (1979) and after (2003) satellite pictures in National Geographic (September 2004, page 21). The pictures show about a third of the polar sea ice disappeared between 1979 and 2003.

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