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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Polar Bear Pic was Bad... But So What?

John Rennie

Andy Revkin, on his Dot Earth blog, has already done a fine job of summarizing the self-defeating gaffe of Science publishing the new letter from 255 National Academy of Sciences members, which rebukes the misleading political assaults on climate research and its investigators, with a Photoshopped image of a polar bear on an ice block. Because of this frustrating error, the attention that the authoritative scientific statement deserves is instead diverting to the flawed rhetoric of its presentation (a mistake introduced by the publication, not by the NAS). The incident has become a perfect cameo of the larger climate-change issue: scientists speak out on the state of the research with facts and substantive arguments, and opponents jump on any small defects in what’s said to argue, honestly or otherwise, that the climate science is wrong, corrupt or both. Of course, the irony of us criticizing Science’s use of the polar bear artwork is we forget that in the eyes of the people most incensed by it, literally no effective image would have been acceptable. I’m not arguing that the polar bear picture wasn’t a particularly bad choice: it was, because it made the critics’ job much too easy. But what images would have been above reproach? Photos of shorelines racked by hurricanes or floods? Icebergs calving off polar glaciers? As individual incidents, none of those can be pinned definitively to global warming, so the critics will always call the images sensationalizing. How about a photo of a polar bear on a larger ice sheet? The critics don’t think polar bears are endangered, wouldn’t really care if they were, and don’t accept that global warming is the real reason for their problems. Ditto for any other climate-endangered species. Care to show photos of people whose livelihoods are jeopardized by climate change? Surely then you are ignoring the flexibility and ingenuity of human economies.

How about just a presentation of the scientific data, then? Maybe, say, a nice hockey-stick graph of rising temperatures over the past millennium? Hmm, apparently that’s not acceptable either, no matter how well vindicated its conclusions might be. Or maybe something showing the rapidly rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere? But surely then you’ll be ignoring the fact that CO2 levels were higher during the Carboniferous, and if it was good enough for Apatosaurus, it will be good enough for us, too.

No, none of those is beyond controversy. Here’s what you need to show to keep the critics happy: Big, empty photos of the sun. Photos of scientists pulling ice cores out of the ground or otherwise engaged in bland, unintelligible, wonkish busywork. Maybe a big group photo of those 255 NAS members standing on the steps of a building in Washington. Photos of the IPCC reports (riveting!). Maybe some artwork of a thermometer creeping into the 90s with a big question mark beside it (awesome!).

Face it: to the people committed to rejecting your message, no image that helps you sell your message persuasively will ever be acceptable—because accepting it would be tantamount to conceding some point in your favor. And if the climate deniers have proven anything, it’s that they are willing to oppose the global warming issue at every possible level, from denying the fact or possibility of global warming right up through dismissing the possibility or desirability of responding to it proactively.

By the way, just as an experiment, consider if the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose 255 scientists released an official statement dismissing global warming as a sham. Are there any images they could use to illustrate that argument forcefully that would elicit an equal sense of outrage and disappointment from others on their own side? Somehow, I doubt it; these are people who have embraced “Al Gore is fat!” as a rallying cry.