Climate change deniers haul out a daft conspiracy theory about Attenborough’s new programme

Photo: skeeze from Pixabay

The propaganda machine of climate change deniers, with the Global Warming Policy Foundation acting as its engine, has been in overdrive again this week, attempting to spread inaccurate and misleading information about a new television programme narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Our Planet is a major series resulting from a collaboration between Netflix, Silverback Films and WWF, which has been available through the streaming service since 5 April 2019.

Declining sea ice causing walrus deaths

The second episode, Frozen Worlds, includes distressing footage of walruses falling to their deaths while trying to scramble down cliffs. The images have received widespread media coverage.

The sequence begins with Sir David describing a shoreline packed with Pacific walruses: “The far north-eastern coast of Russia. This is the largest gathering of walrus on the planet. Over a hundred thousand have hauled out on one single beach. They do so out of desperation, not out of choice. Their natural home is out on the sea ice. But the ice has retreated away to the north, and this is the closest place to the feeding grounds where they can find rest.”

He adds that many walruses, particularly the young, are at risk of being trampled to death in such conditions.

The programme’s explanation is based on solid scientific evidence. Numerous studies have documented that the loss of summer sea ice around the Chukchi Sea, where the programme’s scenes were filmed, is forcing Pacific walruses to ‘haul out’ on land instead.

In 2016, the United States Geological Survey published the Pacific Walrus Coastal Haulout Database, 1852–2016—Background Report, by Anthony Fischbach, Anatoly Kochnev, Joel Garlich-Miller and Chadwick Jay. It stated: “When coastal haulouts are used by large numbers of walruses and the haulout is disturbed, walruses may be trampled if the herd moves in a panic toward the water. For example, when sea ice retreats from large regions of the Chukchi Sea, as in 1990 and 1991, or from the entire Chukchi Sea, as in more recent years beginning in 2007, large numbers of adult females and young walruses formed coastal haulouts, and trampling injuries resulted in the disproportionate death of young walruses by the hundreds and thousands. Such large losses of young walruses could affect overall population growth.”

A review of the Changing state of Arctic sea ice across all seasons by Julienne Stroeve and Dirk Notz, published last year in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that “relative to the average sea ice coverage during the first decade of the satellite record (1979–1989), the Chukchi Sea, the Kara Sea, and the Hudson Bay have lost between 90% and 100% of their September sea ice”.

In summer 2017, when the walruses were recorded for Our Planet, the sea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea was the lowest on record, according to the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The most disturbing images in the programme are of the walruses scrambling up rocky cliff faces, and later falling to their deaths. Sir David says over pictures of the walruses on the slopes: “Some manage to find space away from the crowds. They struggle up the 80-metre cliffs. An extraordinary challenge for a one-tonne animal used to sea ice. At least up here, there is space to rest. The walruses’ eyesight out of water is poor. But they can sense the others down below. As they get hungry, they need to return to the sea. In their desperation to do so, hundreds fall from heights they should never have scaled. These mass gatherings of walrus are now happening almost every year. So the lives of walruses, like those of polar bears and seals, are changing. All are living at the frontier of climate change, and all are suffering as a consequence.”

Such behavior by walruses is rare but not unprecedented. A report published in 1996 by the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies of the United States Government described the deaths of walruses that had fallen from cliffs at Cape Peirce in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in south-western Alaska.

The report’s authors concluded that there was no single reason behind the walruses’ actions, although they may have been attempting to seek shelter from stormy weather. The report’s description of the consequences is eerily similar to the images captured for Our Planet: “They seemed unable to discern their height (6–38m) above the beaches, and often willingly began steep descents, ending in uncontrollable sliding and rolling, and fatal falls. Others often followed, as walruses typically do when hauled out in cohesive herds. Some walruses were crowded out and inadvertently pushed off cliffs as their closely packed herd mates moved closer to the cliff edge.”

No scientific analysis has yet been published about the behavior of the walruses along the coast of Chukotka on the edge of the Chukchi Sea in 2017, but it is indisputable that the huge gathering of animals on the beach captured by the Our Planet film-makers was due to the loss of Arctic sea ice that has resulted from climate change. It is also well-established that walruses struggle to see over long distances on land because their sight is adapted for short-range vision underwater.

Climate change deniers falsely blaming polar bears

 Unfortunately, climate change deniers have used their echo chamber to try to deceive viewers of the programme about the driving causes of the deaths of the walruses. The misinformation campaign began with a blog by Dr Susan Crockford, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Dr Crockford has published papers on the impact of past prehistoric climate changes on animal species, but is fêted by climate change deniers for her outspoken views about the impact of current man-made global warming on polar bears.

Dr Crockford attacked Our Planet on her personal blog on 7 April in response to an article about the programme on Daily Mail Online. She wrote: “The walruses shown in this Netflix film were almost certainly driven over the cliff by polar bears during a well-publicized incident in 2017, not because they were ‘confused by a combination of shrinking ice cover and their own poor eyesight’.”

The only reference cited by Dr Crockford, who has never published any research on walruses, was an English-language article from the website of The Siberian Times published on 17 October 2017. That article reported that a group of about 5,000 walruses in a special protection zone in Chukotka, near to the village of Ryrkaypiy, had been ‘terrorised’ by a group of polar bears, causing them to climb up a cliff next to the beach. The article quoted Viktor Nikiforov, described as ‘Head of WWF project Polar Bear Patrol’. Mr Nikiforov was reported to have said of the walruses: “Many crashed, falling from a height. Their rookery had attracted polar bears. The walruses were obviously frightened by the predators, panicked and fell from the top to their deaths.”

On the basis of this single online news article, Dr Crockford concluded of the Our Planet narration: “This ‘powerful story’ is fiction and emotional manipulation at its worst. Even if the footage shown by Attenborough was not the 2017 incident in Ryrkaypiy (or a similar one from another year or similar location), we know that walruses reach the top of cliffs in some locations and might fall if startled by polar bears, people or aircraft overhead, not because they are confused by shrinking sea ice cover. Walrus will not replace polar bears as an icon for global warming because neither is being harmed by reduced summer sea ice.”

Our Planet crew sets the record straight

However, Dr Crockford’s speculations, which were reported prominently in The Daily Telegraph on 9 April, have been conclusively disproven by the producer who oversaw the filming of the walruses.

Sophie Lanfear of Silverback Films told the Telegraph: “We filmed Pacific walrus falling from high cliffs. They were not being driven off the cliffs by the polar bears and we know this because we had two team members watching the cliffs from afar who could see the polar bears and were in radio communications with us to warn us about any bears approaching the crew closer to the walrus and the cliffs.

“Once the walrus had rested at the top for a few days they wanted to return to sea when all the others below started to leave. We would watch them for hours teetering back and forth on the edge before finally, falling off.

“Fundamentally, the reason walrus used this haulout location is because of a lack of sea ice in the region, meaning they are coming ashore more frequently than they did in the past. Especially mothers with their pups. And at this particular site, once the beach below the cliffs was full, they spread out and up the cliffs and were unable to find their way safely down, with tragic consequences.”

The public’s trust lies with Attenborough, not the deniers

It is clear that Dr Crockford’s dismissal of the role of climate change and retreating Arctic sea ice lacks any scientific credibility. Nonetheless, her false allegations about the programme have been pushed widely by climate change deniers.

The Global Warming Policy Forum, which set up by the Global Warming Policy Foundation to circumvent Charity Commission rules about political lobbying, distributed a press release quoting Dr Crockford’s blog at length. The Foundation has promoted Dr Crockford’s false claims about polar bears many times over the past few years, through pamphlets and a book.

The press release fooled journalists at The Daily Telegraph and the Mail Online into covering Dr Crockford’s discredited claims. Her blog was also hyped in a daft article for The Spectator magazine by Andrew Montford, the deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Mr Montford suggested wrongly that the programme had not made clear where or when the walruses had been filmed. In fact, he need only to have consulted the programme’s website to find a video explaining that the footage was taken in Chukotka in 2017.

Mr Montford’s further attempt at myth-making was faithfully publicised on Twitter by Viscount Ridley, a member of the Foundation’s ‘Academic Advisory Council’, and Andrew Neil, the BBC television presenter who is also chairman of Press Holdings Media Group, owner of The Spectator.

This attempt by climate change deniers to confuse the public with false propaganda about Our Planet is an obvious act of desperation. The public trusts Sir David Attenborough far more than it trusts the deniers, and the deniers know it. And the public can see the overwhelming evidence of climate change all around them, including in the Arctic, where the sea ice extent is currently at the lowest level since records began for this time of year.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.