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Newsletter 5th January 2007

- Are polar bears in danger? - GM crops - The year ahead

Are polar bears in danger?
The polar bear is an iconic species which has been the centre of some attention recently. In particular, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) has proposed that it be put on the list of endangered species. At first sight, this is the thin end of a very large wedge, with the American government taking the first step towards acceptance that global warming is a real issue which can be mitigated by major reductions in the output of carbon dioxide. And this is how the story has generally been reported, for example by the BBC (US accepts threat to polar bears - and the Independent (Bush embraces the polar bear – and accepts the dangers of global warming -
In practice, the situation is not so clear cut. First, the DOI has taken as long as statutorily possible to respond to a legal suit brought by Greenpeace and two other environmental activist groups. The proposal is now open to public consultation for 90 days and the government says that it could take up to a year to complete the process. Secondly, they effectively have no choice in putting forward the proposal, because in the recent past there has been a clear trend for a reduction in the amount of summer sea-ice (from which polar bears hunt seals).
The key issue here is that, under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, the US government would have to put in place a plan designed to protect the habitat of the polar bear. Now, it is one thing to protect a species in a more temperate climate by providing suitable habitat (field margins, forest etc), but quite another to guarantee more sea ice in the Arctic.
This puts the government on the horns of a dilemma. Legally, they must do what they can, but this leads them to an unenviable choice. Either they must say that the reasons for a reduction in Arctic ice are unknown and they can do nothing directly about this, or they have to say that carbon dioxide levels are likely to be the major driver and must therefore be reduced. They are between the devil and the deep blue (ice-free) sea. Either choice will mean continued pressure from environmentalists. Neither will help the polar bear population. Only lawyers are likely to benefit.
No wonder the Wall Street Journal takes a rather different stance (Polar Bear Politics; 3rd January; subscription only):
“…there are in fact more polar bears in the world now than there were 40 years ago, as the nearby chart shows. The main threat to polar bears in recent decades has been from hunting, with estimates as low as 5,000 to 10,000 bears in the 1950s and 1960s. But thanks to conservation efforts, and some cross-border cooperation among the U.S., Canada and Russia, the best estimate today is that the polar bear population is 20,000 to 25,000.

It also turns out that most of the alarm over the polar bear's future stems from a single, peer-reviewed study, which found that the bear population had declined by some 250, or 25%, in Western Hudson Bay in the last decade. But the polar bear's range is far more extensive than Hudson Bay. A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey of wildlife in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain concluded that the ice bear populations "may now be near historic highs." One of the leading experts on the polar bear, Mitchell Taylor, the manager of wildlife resources for the Nunavut territory in Canada, has found that the Canadian polar bear population has actually increased by 25% -- to 15,000 from 12,000 over the past decade.”
Polar bears may also be more adaptable than we think. They obviously survived the Roman Warm Period and the Mediaeval Warm Period. Although we have no evidence about the extent of Arctic ice during these periods, the fact that farming was possible in Greenland and Iceland in the Middle Ages means their climates must have been considerably warmer than at present. If so, it is inconceivable that Arctic ice was nearly as extensive as now, but polar bears still survived. This present issue is not really about polar bears: they are just a high-profile means to pressurise the American government.
GM crops
GM crops are no longer the high-profile issue they once were in Europe, but they can still cause controversy. 2006 saw several minor but important milestones. BASF’s dossier for high-amylopectin potatoes for industrial use passed the scientific risk assessment stage successfully, but ran into the expected impasse when put to the vote by member state representatives in the regulatory committee. A majority voted in favour, but under qualified majority voting rules this was not sufficient for approval. The Council of Ministers will vote on this next, and it is inevitable that a qualified majority will not be achieved for either approval or rejection. The final step would be to pass this back to the Commission, who will then give approval on the basis of the positive risk assessment. We should then see the first new approval for cultivation of a GM crop in Europe since 1998.
In parallel, BASF now also has permission to plant trial plots of GM blight-resistant potatoes in the UK. Originally planned to take place in Cambridgeshire and Derbyshire, the latter farmer has now withdrawn after pressure from those with an ideological objection to crop biotechnology. Unfortunately, bullying is all too common amongst those committed to a view by belief rather than reason. Fortunately, there will be another farmer to take his place.
There are also other positive signs. Maize farmers in the south of France have begun to take notice of what is happening the other side of the Pyrenees and started to plant GM maize in their own fields. In the land of José Bové this is a significant step. France, as one of Europe’s most important farming countries, could well turn out to embrace the new technology enthusiastically in the long run. Last but not least, Germany voted in favour of the industrial starch potato dossier. Doubtless this was helped by the fact that the applicant is a German company, but this would still have been inconceivable in the days of Renate Kuenast.
The year ahead
The start of a new year is always an opportunity to look ahead at what might happen. One highly significant event will be the publication (due in May ) of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. This will be a massive compilation of the work of scientists, modellers, economists and others and will be seen as the definitive view of the state of climate science for the time being. Unfortunately, given the vast complexity of the climate system, the in-built assumption that anthropogenic carbon emissions are the major driver of change, and the reliance on computer models, this can only be a partial view of the real situation, and this is compounded by the politicisation of the Summary for Policymakers, the only part of the document which is generally referred to. Nevertheless, the signs are that some of the more extreme projections will have been reined in, and this publication could form the basis of a rational and wide-ranging debate.
Whether it is a publicity stunt or not, the UK Met Office has bravely predicted that 2007 will be the warmest year on record, enhanced partly by a (relatively mild) El Nino event. We should not forget that 1998 (a major El Nino year) is currently the warmest on record. In the ensuing eight years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise, but there has been no upward trend in temperatures. We have no idea whether 2007 will see higher average temperatures or not, so the Met Office could be right. If not, increasingly creative ways of defining a warming trend will have to be found to support the IPCC view. Already, we have learnt to talk about climate change rather than global warming, but this will not be enough to convince a sceptical public if the dire predictions do not come to pass.
A change of UK prime minister by mid-year may (or may not) herald stronger policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. David Milliband could be given his head. On the other hand, despite the rhetoric, there is nothing to suggest that Gordon Brown (assuming there are no last-minute upsets in the succession) would commit electoral suicide by increasing costs of energy or transport significantly. And as for carbon rationing, that would surely be even less popular than ID cards.
Other significant issues which are likely to be prominent over the next year include energy security, nuclear power (will we see a renaissance?), wind power (will we realise that this can never do more than rather unreliably fill a niche?), plane travel (surely economic growth will trump environmentalist pressure) and biofuels (good or bad?). Other predictions from our readers would be welcome.
We wish you all a peaceful, prosperous and happy 2007.