Polar bears

Review from Esther Enkin, Ombudsman | English Services

The complainant thought a segment on The Current was unbalanced in a discussion about a proposal for humans to feed polar bears if they were unable to survive in the future because of global warming. Bill Chapman had issues with the coverage on many fronts: he felt the program was sensationalizing a non-existent problem because there is no proof polar bears are endangered, and that once again CBC accepted as fact that climate change is caused by human activity.


In February The Current devoted the first half hour of its show to a discussion based on a research paper that the first interviewee, Andrew Derocher, co-authored with about a dozen other leading polar bear researchers. Dr. Derocher is a professor of biology at University of Alberta. In the paper they proposed that policy makers consider various options for sustaining polar bears as they become increasingly threatened, and do so before there was a critical need.

The segment was part of a larger series The Current features from time to time entitled Line in the Sand: Dilemmas that Define Us. The Current describes the series as “The Current's new season-long project about the significant dilemmas we all face in life... the difficult ethical choices we're forced to make, both in our professional and personal lives... the lines we all draw in the sand.”

In this case, the discussion explored the option of feeding bears from the point of view of the researcher who is proposing this as an option, from the deputy minister of the environment for Nunavut, a wildlife worker who raised some concerns based on his work feeding condors in the wild, and a bioethicist who laid out the ethical dilemmas he saw in feeding wildlife to ensure a species’ survival.

You were upset at what you considered “sloppy journalism.” First and foremost you think it is sloppy “on issues surrounding the possibility that global warming is caused by man.” You thought the whole premise that polar bears are in danger was false, and mischaracterized by program host Anna Maria Tremonti. You strongly objected to the way she described the problem when putting the case to the second guest, David Akeeagok, deputy minister of the environment for Nunavut. As you said in a response to the letter sent to you by the program: “…the polar bear expert which Ms. Tremonti interviewed stated very clearly that most of the populations of polar bears in the world are not in any problem.” You thought she “tried to confuse her Inuit guest by fabricating the existence of a conflict between people-on-the-land (sic) and scientists with regard to the status of polar bears.” You believe the “polar bear debate is actually characterized by most scientists and most people who live with polar bears on one side and on the other side are eco-extremists, a few scientists and the news media.” At best you think this is “sloppy, lazy journalism” but actually are concerned that “…CBC cynically decided that fear sells and so are willing to bury the truth in favor of sales…”


The executive producer of The Current, Jennifer Moroz, responded to your complaint and apologized for the delay in doing so. She responded to your overall concerns about coverage of global warming issues by stating:

“Finally, your assertion that CBC ‘steadfastly refuses’ to interview any experts on the ‘weaknesses in the anthropogenic global warming theory’ is simply not true. CBC programs over the years have certainly included the views of those who are skeptical of the broad scientific consensus on climate change.

CBC is obliged by federal regulation and corporate policy to cover controversial matters of topical interest, such as climate change, fairly, accurately and, also, equitably. CBC’s journalistic policy, for instance, says we must ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully ‘taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are.’ In other words, while CBC, including this program, is committed to equitable coverage, equitable here does not mean equal.

The overwhelming consensus of scientists working in relevant fields is that human activity is largely responsible for climate change.”

She also explained that this particular program segment “focused on the narrow question of whether humans should prepare to step in to help polar bears down the road if ice continues to melt and large numbers of the animals are forced inland, away from their traditional food supply for long stretches.” She explained the introduction to the piece mentioned several options and that “The trouble is that each of those ideas carries its own dangers.” The segment went on to examine those issues and dangers from the perspective of four different interviewees, all of them with particular expertise.

Ms Moroz was puzzled at your perception that the program host mischaracterized Dr. Derocher’s position.

“Early in the interview, Mr. Derocher said, ‘We’re not at the point of having to feed polar bears yet…but we’re seeing problem bears throughout the Arctic.’ Bears are spending more time on land as the sea ice disappears, he said, adding that some populations are ‘definitely facing nutritional stress,’ citing cases of dead and starving animals near the western shores of Hudson Bay as one example. ‘In the sea ice modelling that we've done, we have clear indications that we could see a serious event at any time now,’ he said. ‘But,’ he emphasized, ‘it’s also important to note that we’ve got 19 different populations in the Arctic and many of these populations are extremely healthy and don’t have any near-term threat posed to them.’

In other words, Mr. Derocher and his co-authors, are not claiming that we need to start feeding bears immediately. Rather, they're saying the threat of starvation is real, that in some places a sudden reduction is sea ice would push bear populations over the brink, and that policy makers in different countries would be well advised to think about whether intervention makes sense.”

She felt that then asking deputy minister Akeeagok how one might understand the “disconnect” between the view of the Inuit in Nunavut that the population is in fact increasing, and the scientists’ concerns that some bear populations were under stress, was legitimate and did not falsely portray the position of the scientist.

“Ms. Tremonti then spoke with Nunavut deputy minister Mr. Akeeagok, who holds a different perspective. He said there is a ‘completely opposite conversation here in Nunavut.’ ‘There is no crisis’ involving polar bears in Nunavut because residents there have noticed a rebound in populations in recent years ‘to a very healthy number,’ he said.

Reasonably, Ms. Tremonti asked, ‘Why is that?’ Why is there such a difference when you have people who track polar bears world-wide saying there’s actually a decrease, but the people who live around them saying it’s not true. Where is the disconnect?”

It was an invitation to Mr. Akeeagok to set out his views. He explained that the people who live in the area are seeing “more and more” polar bears. There’s been a “huge increase” in sightings, he said.

Ms. Tremonti asked whether it was possible the increased number of sightings in Nunavut might not simply reflect a reduction in sea ice forcing more bears inland closer to populated areas because they can’t survive where they were.”


There are several concerns you raise, but fundamentally you take issue with the discussion because you believe it is an unbalanced look at the whole issue of climate change in general, and that there is no problem with polar bears in particular. You feel that the program and CBC are pushing an “agenda” of anthropomorphic (human caused) climate change, and that this was an example of that.

This raises two CBC policy concerns, one of balance and the other accuracy. You raise issues of accuracy as well when you question how Ms. Tremonti phrased her questions to Mr. Ageeagok.

The CBC journalistic policy on Balance calls for a reflection of a range of views, and especially when it comes to issues of controversy it states:

“...we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

This means that a range of views should be acknowledged, but there is not an equivalence. Not all views and perspectives must be treated equally, or with the same frequency. While the issue of climate change was not really the focus of this episode of The Current, it is true it was an underlying assumption. And that is well within acceptable policy because the opposing views on the cause and impacts of climate change are no longer equivalent. There may be nuance on what findings mean, or what should be done, but that was well reflected in the range of interviews.

There is a growing global consensus on climate change. Undoubtedly there are still some questions remaining, but over 200 science organizations hold the position that climate change is caused by human actions. No significant scientific body of international standing disagrees. There are a few that take a non-committal position.

The United States National Research Council, summarizing the science on climate change states: “there is a strong, credible body of work, based on multiple lines of research documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful examination of alternative explanations.”

A recent study of the literature shows an overwhelming percentage of the peer reviewed literature written by climate scientists supports anthropomorphic causes of climate change. You say science is not decided by consensus. Science is based on evidence, and there is a growing body of peer-reviewed published evidence and analysis that supports the consensus. Policy is made based on this data. Editorial choices and the obligation to provide balance within the context of a single item certainly are based on the relevance of particular views.

Turning to the specifics of the polar bear discussion: the proposal to consider feeding the bears some time in the future if they become more threatened is based on a report entitled Rapid ecosystem change and polar bear conservation. The authors have worked with polar bears in three of the five nations that have significant populations.

Dr. Derocher explained to me that in assessing risk to the bears, he and his colleagues rely on the work of climate scientists and sea ice scientists. Again, the overwhelming thrust of the literature points to diminished habitat for the bears and this puts the animals at risk. For example, a 2006 study on the National Snow and Ice Data Center web site states: “Many arctic mammals, such as polar bears, seals, and walruses, depend on the sea ice for their habitat. These species hunt, feed, and breed on the ice. Studies of polar bear populations indicate that declining sea ice is likely to decrease polar bear numbers, perhaps substantially (Stirling and Parkinson 2006).”

In the interview, Dr. Derocher is not saying polar bears are not at risk. He talks about the fact that the threat is not consistent. Far from being an alarmist, he was explaining what the research has shown until now. And this is, in some areas, notably the western Arctic, the populations are under stress. This is consistent with international studies that find that while some populations are in decline, others are stable or even growing. The trend though is that more populations are declining. In 2008, the United States deemed polar bears a threatened species. In Canada and Russia they are considered species of special concern. This hardly rates as CBC hype or the position of “eco-extremists.”

There clearly is a disconnect between the scientific evidence and the experience of the Inuit of Nunavut. When I listen to the interview, I do not hear Ms Tremonti mischaracterizing or attempting to confuse the deputy minister, who was clear about his views as well. Her questions flow logically from his statement, “Our concern is that polar bears have become so polarized…it appears to have a crisis situation where there is no crisis. Polar bears in Canada, throughout the world has rebounded to a very healthy number.” The previous guest painted a different picture, with the caveat that it was not consistent and that his work is anticipating future trends.

When asked what might cause the “disconnect”, David Akeeagok provided several possible explanations: that the scientists come and go, but the Inuit are always there on the land. He also explained that even with the loss of sea ice (which he does not seem to dispute), the bears might have to range through a larger habitat, and in the end “From the Inuit knowledge that has been coming to us polar bears will go where there is food, and even on land they’ll eat.” In other words, the great majority of scientists with knowledge in the area believe the loss of habitat is critical, and the Inuit believe the bears will adapt.

The program featured two more interviews: one was a segment from Kelly Sorenson, who had experience feeding condors in the wild, and he laid out some of the negative consequences they experienced; the final interview with Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at University of Toronto, raised the broader ethical issues. On the whole, he did not think it ethically sound to go down this road.

The treatment of this subject was broad, thorough, balanced and fair. It was based on a premise you reject. There is no obligation for the programmers to have backed up and recreated the debate on climate change in order to fulfill their responsibilities. This edition of The Current fully complied with CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman