The fuss over the Photoshopped polar bear ...

... is actually good news for those holding down the scientific fort.

Last week, Science published a letter from 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences pleading for "an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues" in the climatology community. The letter laid bare (not bear) the scientific basis for the theory of anthropogenic climate change, a theory the authors said belongs in the same category as the theories of evolution and the Big Bang. So far so good. It was accompanied by a collage image of polar bear isolated on a single ice floe (at right), an image described as just that. But some took umbrage at its use, and it was replaced by a non-manipulated photograph (below right). No big deal, right?

Wrong. Climate change pseudoskeptics seized on the use of the collage as yet more evidence of dishonesty in the ranks. James Delingpole at the Telegraph, for example, even went so far as to blame the letter's authors for the misstep:

Well, anyway that's what 255 members of America's National Academy of Sciences want you to believe.

Of course, as a journalist, Delingpole knows full well the authors of the letter had nothing to do with the choice of stock imagery to illustrate the item. But that's not a surprise.

What's refreshing is how the pseudoskeptics have focused on the image, rather than the science. It has all the hallmarks of an act of desperation. The letter lays out the scientific underpinnings of AGW so concisely and elegantly, that it's hard for even the more devout members of the denial community to argue against it. Even Roger Pielke Jr. got distracted. Instead they chose to attack an illustration that has no bearing on the case at hand. Could it be that they're beginning to weary of banging their heads against a wall of increasingly unassailable facts?

One can only hope.

Here's the science detailed in the letter:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

The letter's lead author, Peter Gleick, isn't as optimistic, though. In a HuffPost essay he sees the attention being drawn to the image as just another example of the climate denial movement's well-worn strategy:

This focus on the art the editors chose to accompany the letter is an attempt by climate deniers to divert public attention once again from the facts of climate change. This is exactly what the scientists are talking about in the letter. Instead of challenging the science with better science, the vocal deniers are grasping at any straw to muddy the waters and confuse the public about the real climate threats we face. Mistakes found in the IPCC assessment of climate? Oh, then all climate science must be mistaken.

Maybe. We'll see.

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See its like this, that the undoctored photo show two polar bears proves that there is no problem with the climate.

They can mate and their cubs will each come with their own mini ice berg. Enough mating & the artic sea will be chock full of ice again.

You're right, it's an act of desperation. Denialism is running on empty, unable to produce any credible science to support its position.

It's time to turn away from them. If you have a bookmark to a denialist blog, remove it because the sole purpose of such blogs is to distract us from the science and Its implications for public policy.

By Tony Sidaway (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

"Even Roger Pielke Jr. got distracted." No, really? :)

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

It's stunning how the climate denialist's arguments look like creationist's arguments.

As far as I can tell, their best argument is "No! You're wrong."

Sometimes, no picture is better as it distracts, in this case with "oh, there they go with the polar bears again", or "boy, anyone knows that polar bear numbers are up" etc. You can't capture AGW in a meaningful way in a single photo that would hit home with the deniers, the ones who need to be reached or nullified.

By David Stewart (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

As I see it, by the time we get an actual photo of the outcome of AGW, it will be too late. Then all we'll hear is, "Somebody should have told us!"

By Old Geezer (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink

If it wasn't the photo it would have been something else. Probably they would have dug up some dirt on one of the signers or something.