Between Scientists & Citizens

Responsibility for polar bear arguments

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Harvey et al., “Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy” (2017) identifies an argumentative strategy used by those who question the links between climate change, arctic sea ice, and declining polar bear populations (TWQ):

the main strategy of denier blogs is therefore to focus on topics that are showy and in which it is therefore easy to generate public interest. These topics are used as “proxies” for AGW in general; in other words, they represent keystone dominoes that are strategically placed in front of many hundreds of others, each representing a separate line of evidence for AGW. By appearing to knock over the keystone domino, audiences targeted by the communication may assume all other dominoes are toppled in a form of “dismissal by association.”

Stripping this of its mixed metaphors, the claim is:  TWQ claim that by refuting the arguments about polar bears put forward by those on the side of the authors (or angels, TOTSOTA), they are refuting the existence and significance of AGW.

I think this is an accurate statement of one TWQ argumentative strategy which (unlike Harvey et al.) I will document below. However, Harvey et al. are mistaken in taking this strategy to be illegitimate. Quite the contrary: the TWQ strategy is a well-justified and strategic response to the case made by TOTSOTA. To throw in another metaphor:  TWQ polar bear arguments are TOTSOTA chickens coming home to roost.

Harvey, J. A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T. W., Roessingh, P., … & Stirling, I. (2017). Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. BioScience 68(4): 281–287.

Here are the steps I’ll be taking:

  1. Through putting forward arguments, arguers take on responsibilities that they can be held to.
  2. TOTSOTA advocates have consistently and openly put forward polar bears as a uniquely strong and even sufficient argument for the existence and significance of AGW.
  3. TWQ advocates have taken advantage of the responsibilities undertaken by TOTSOTA.

I will close with a recommendation for practice.

1. Arguers’ responsibilities

Let’s start with a principle that’s built into our argumentative practices: When a person puts forward a claim in the public sphere, she’s taking responsibility for it. Her opponents have the right to hold her responsible, demanding that she meet her burden of proof by producing good arguments to defend her claim.

Contemporary argumentation theory [1] builds on this commonsense idea by noting that arguers take more responsibilities than just for the truth of what they are saying. Every move in a debate opens what theorist Sally Jackson has called “disagreement space”–a broad and complex set of commitments, any one of which has the potential of being called out and argued. For example:

  • making an argument on an issue is an admission that the issue is relevant; an arguer can’t later refuse to discuss it.
  • using a rule to assess others’ conduct means that the arguer takes responsibility for the relevance of the rule, and must accept it applied to her own conduct.
  • by making an argument of a certain type (e.g., scientific), an arguer is claiming to be the kind of person who can make that kind of argument; that commitment can be challenged.
  • making an argument implies that the argument is relevant to the ultimate issue; if the arguer cannot maintain the argument against opponents, she must admit that her case has been weakened.

A large part of debate strategy consists of being careful in accepting argumentative responsibilities. Undertake too few, and your case is likely to be dismissed as irresponsible. Undertake too many, or the wrong ones, and you won’t be able to fulfill them; your failure will legitimately be taken as a sign of the weakness of your overall claim.

Let’s add one more responsibility to the arguer’s list:

  • An arguer who puts heavy emphasis on one line of argument is holding it out as the very best argument she can make, and perhaps even sufficient on its own to decide the case. If she can’t defend it successfully when called out, it’s legitimate to infer that all her other arguments are at least as weak, and that her overall claim is poorly supported.

2.  Polar bears and the case for climate action

As Harvey et al. note, polar bears “are iconic symbols of the negative effects of AGW.” A less coy way of saying this would have been:  TOTSOTA advocates have insistently put forward polar bears as iconic symbols of the negative effects of AGW. I’ll briefly review some of the leading moments in this continuing campaign [2].

According to Mooallem’s excellent and nuanced account of the polar bear debates, the Center for Biological Diversity was one of the earliest advocacy groups to take advantage of the bear. Their goal was to leverage the Endangered Species Act to force the US government to recognize the existence and impacts of climate change and thus lay the groundwork for regulating emissions of greenhouse gases. After a petition to protect an arctic seabird got circular-filed by the bureaucracy, in 2005 the Center settled on the polar bear instead. “They were using the bear as a trap in a much bigger and longer-running legalistic war of words,” Mooallem explains. “The species had become a spokes-species, and no matter what context polar bears appeared in, they symbolized the same thing”

The media were happy to follow along in portraying polar bears as linchpins of the case for climate concern.


Advocates also placed polar bears at the center of their cases for climate action. Greenpeace had begun using bears as early as 2003 because they were already “familiar to everyone” (Slocum, 2004). The emphasis continued:


Scientists–or at least, the communication professionals who work for scientists–have also collaborated in the efforts to make polar bears iconic. In what has been described as “a neat piece of marketing,” the Canadian Ice Service released this controversial photo to coincide with the 2007 IPCC 4AR:

Canadian ice service.jpg

In a particularly embarrassing incident in 2010, staff at Science selected a photoshopped stock image to accompany an open letter from 200+ scientists decrying attacks on climate science. The photoshopped image of one polar bear on an icefloe was retracted, and replaced by a non-photoshopped image of two polar bears on an icefloe.


[Update 4/23/18] All four visual (video, graphic) finalists in this year’s Alan Alda Flame Challenge use polar bears to explain the scientific view of climate, including one with a ten second clip of a starving bear. Interestingly, none of the written finalists mentioned bears.

Some communication scholars have criticized this relentless focus on polar bears. An early article by Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and Leiserowitz (one of authors of Harvey et al.) urged communicators to promote “more accurate perceptions of the threat of global warming” by focusing instead on “species psychologically, spatially, and temporally distant from most residents of the U.S.” Olausson (2010) documented the saliency of polar bear images for ordinary audiences, but also the way they disempowered responses. Manzo (2010), referenced by Harvey et al., argued for the “limited, paradoxical and/or counter-productive effects of an over-reliance on fear-laden images,” urging communicators “to move beyond polar bears as the iconic representation of climate change.” (But see Swim & Bloodhart, 2015 and O’Neil & Hulme, 2009 for some evidence against these concerns.)

[Update, May 1, 2018]:  The study underlying the Climate Visuals Project found that polar-bear-on-ice-floe was the most understandable image–the ” ‘symbol’ of climate change. However,” the report continues, “these ‘classic’ climate images also prompted a significant amount of cynicism. One participant (in a comment characteristic of the London and Berlin groups) said “…the polar bear…makes me angry for some reason. Not because I’m like ‘oh no that’s a pressing issue’, but like ‘oh this is so annoying’ I don’t want to see them again. Like when you see a bad ad and you’re like, oh leave me alone with that crap.”

Of most relevance here, however, is the critique of the emphasis on polar bears by Nisbet & Scheufele (2009). These authors note that advocates in the climate controversies attempt to respond to their opponent’s frames (“interpretative storylines that communicate what is at stake in a societal debate and why the issue matters”) by putting forward alternative frames–frames which the opponents then exploit in turn:

Al Gore, many environmentalists, and even some scientists have attempted to counter the uncertainty and economic development frames with their own Pandora’s box emphasis on a looming “climate crisis.” To instantly translate their preferred interpretation, these advocates have relied on depictions of specific climate impacts including hurricane devastation, melting polar ice, and the threat to polar bears. Yet this line of communication plays directly into the hands of climate skeptics, who accuse Gore of liberal “alarmism,” putting the issue quickly back into the mental box of scientific uncertainty and partisanship.

In the next section, I document how putting polar bears at the center of the debate has “played directly into the hands” of TWQ.

3.  Holding advocates responsible for their polar bear claims

It’s no surprise that TWQ quickly took aim at the big target so TOTSOTA advocates had so carefully painted on their backs.  Chapter 1 of Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It (2007) opens with references to the Time cover included above. He then argues that the problems with this “story” of climate change as representative of the entire case for AGW:

Padding across the ice, polar bears are beautiful animals. To Greenland— part of my own nation, Denmark— they are a symbol of pride. The loss of this animal would be a tragedy. But the real story of the polar bear is instructive. In many ways, this tale encapsulates the broader problem with the climate-change concern: once you look closely at the supporting data, the narrative falls apart.

Citing a series of specific polar bear claims made by Gore, the WWF and other TOTSOTA sources, he then proceeds to refute them by quoting them against themselves, putting their claims in a larger context, and bringing in additional evidence. (For replies to Lomborg’s points, see Friel, 2010 or Lomborg-errors). “The polar-bear story teaches us three things” about the larger debate, Lomborg concludes:  that  TOTSOTA advocates are making “vastly exaggerated and emotional” claims, that they are not telling the whole story, and that they are pointing to the wrong solutions.

Zac Unger sets up his articles and book-length polar bear counter-narrative in a similar way, as responding to the pull that iconic images exerted on him:

I didn’t end up in polar bear country by accident. I went there because I wanted to be a hero of the environmental movement. What spotted owls and baby harp seals were to previous decades, polar bears were to the 2000s. Their coming annihilation at the hands of callous consumerism was Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the Exxon Valdez all rolled into one sad, furry face. Everything that was bad about the world could be easily expressed by the image of a lone bear on a melting piece of ice. And I was going to be the one to write the book that brought it all together in one tidy package.

Having started with the aim of documenting “everything that was bad in the world” as compressed into the fate of polar bears, Unger tells a conversion story of discovering (almost against his will) evidence of increasing populations and adaptability, and encountering misstatements and hype from advocates and scientists. In the climactic scene, a scientist who had just privately denied that any single “‘fingerprint of climate change'” could be detected, goes on the air to join another scientist declaring “‘This is the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.'” Having become skeptical of his former faith in the climate icon, Unger concludes “I must be a giant climate-change-denying asshole.”

4.  What is to be done?

To summarize: Lomborg could make his arguments and Unger tell his story only because TOTSOTA advocates, media and even scientists had already established the polar bear as a central support, or even the central support, of the case for the existence and significance of AGW. To use the Harvey et al.’s metaphors, TOTSOTA arguers have set up polar bears as a “keystone” argument, inviting opponents to take them as a “proxy” for the entire case for climate action, thus carefully laying out “dominos” for opponents to tip over. And TWQ have accepted this invitation.

Stripped of its unfortunate war metaphors, the conclusion of Harvey et al. joins the chorus of calls for scientists to engage with publics. As scientists do so, they will find themselves burdened by these imprudent strategic choices of past advocates for climate action. So in addition to addressing the claims of TWQ, scientists should invest some energy into re-forming the disagreement space of the debate. One appropriate strategy would be for scientists to encourage TOTSOTA advocates to take responsibility for the claims that are most scientifically defensible. Scientists should insist that advocates put forward all “the volumes of physical evidence for AGW” (Harvey et al., p. 280). Scientists should counter advocates who misrepresent the case for AGW by investing too heavily in single issues, and who thereby legitimize the focus of TWQ on these issues. In particular, scientists should criticize TOTSOTA advocates who put excess weight on arguments about polar bears, and urge them instead to follow the AR5 WGII report and put equal stress on the impacts of AGW on bears, and on copepods.


For further reading

[1] Argumentation and responsibilities

Goodwin, J. (2018). Effective because ethical: Speech act theory as a framework for scientists’ communication. In S Priest, J Goodwin & M Dahlstrom (Eds.). Ethics and Practice in Science Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jackson, S. (1992). “Virtual standpoints” and the pragmatics of conversational argument. In van Eemeren & Grootendorst (Eds.) Argumentation illuminated, 1, 260-269.

Jackson, S. (2008). Predicaments of politicization in the debate over abstinence-only sex education. In Controversy, confrontation: Relating controversy analysis with argumentation theory, ed. FH van Eemeren and B. Garssen, 215-230.

Kauffeld, F. (2009). What are we learning about the arguers’ probative obligations. In S. Jacobs (Ed.) Concerning Argument (pp. 1–31).

Klonoff, R., & Colby, P. (2007). Winning Jury Trials: Trial Tactics and Sponsorship Strategy.

[2] Polar bears and AGW advocacy

Maibach, E. W., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2008). Communication and marketing as climate change–intervention assets: A public health perspective. American journal of preventive medicine, 35(5), 488-500.

Manzo, K. (2010). Beyond polar bears? Re‐envisioning climate change. Meteorological Applications, 17(2), 196-208.

Mooallem, J. (2014). Wild ones: a sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about looking at people looking at animals in America. Penguin Group USA.

Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American journal of botany, 96(10), 1767-1778.

Olausson, U. (2011). “We’re the ones to blame”: Citizens’ representations of climate change and the role of the media. Environmental Communication: A journal of nature and culture, 5(3), 281-299.

O’Neill, S. J., & Hulme, M. (2009). An iconic approach for representing climate change. Global Environmental Change, 19(4), 402-410.

Reid, Lauren. (2018). 50 Times Polar Bears Crushed It for Greenpeace. Retrieved from

Slocum, R. (2004). Polar bears and energy-efficient lightbulbs: strategies to bring climate change home. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 22(3), 413-438.

Swim, J. K., & Bloodhart, B. (2015). Portraying the perils to polar bears: The role of empathic and objective perspective-taking toward animals in climate change communication. Environmental Communication, 9(4), 446-468.

[3] Questioning Polar Bears

Friel, Howard (2010). The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming. Yale UP.

Lomborg, B. (2007) Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. Vintage Books.

Unger, Z. (2013). Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows. Da Capo Press.



Written by jeangoodwin

April 21, 2018 at 2:27 pm

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