This is going to sound strange: quality, reliable environmental data is very difficult to find. We care about the environment, not just because it supports us and gives us pleasure, but because it’s important to balance our use of the planet’s resources with our care of them. There are many extreme groups that skew the message - they use scare tactics and dramatic images to raise money. The press eats these scary images like lollipops, because it sells more copies and draws more eyeballs. But finding the balance is surprisingly difficult.
We take an evidence-based approach to the environment. We want to know what the data says and change our beliefs when we learn something new, rather than trying to make the evidence fit our existing belief systems. For example, did you know:
Over 600 polar bears are killed by hunters with permits each year. That’s over 6,000 bears in the past ten years. How many bears are left? There are about 40,000 polar bears, and permits allow the harvest of 15 percent every ten years. Believe it or not, polar bear populations are quite healthy and continue to grow as allowed by those who give out the hunting permits. There is no polar-bear emergency. Does that surprise you?
Are our forests being depleted? Believe it or not, we have more green acreage now than any time in the last several thousand years.* We do need to promote biodiversity and protect intact ancient forests. This are emergencies in a few places, but overall it’s not as bad as the press makes it sound.
How about DDT? DDT was widely vilified in the 1980s. Researchers claimed it was responsible for eggshell thinning and birth defects in raptors.* The alarm was sounded, and as a result DDT use was curtailed. That led to many more malaria deaths than we would have had if we had kept using DDT. Recent studies have shown only a tiny association with birth defects, the trade-offs are worth it to eliminate malaria, and the WHO includes DDT on the list of approved substances to kill mosquito eggs. Cost-benefit analysis is a better tactic than emotional alarms, scary imagery, and zealotry.
What about the Ozone hole? It’s likely that CFCs had nothing to do with the ozone hole and stopping them simply coincided with the natural reduction of the size of the “hole.” While the basic chemical theory is solid, we should always ask for direct evidence, not laboratory evidence. NASA recently reported that the size of the ozone hole naturally varies a lot over decades. The ozone hole is likely to continue expanding and contracting naturally. I don’t think there was ever any emergency. I don’t believe the Kyoto protocol had anything to do with it. But I’m willing to correct that view if I see evidence to the contrary.
Are we losing all our insect species? We are losing many species, but it’s not as bad as people think. It’s not an insect apocalypse, but we should definitely take steps to limit further breakup of intact ancient forests.
What about the bees? Bee colony collapse was very real in the first decade of this century. The causes were quite complex, involving many factors, but it only lasted a few years. Colonies routinely lose bees in winter; beekeepers have many options for restoring colony numbers in summer. In general, colony collapse disorder was overblown in the media. Bee numbers have been predictably steady for decades.