‘Caribou Science Denial’ Undercuts Boreal Forest as Essential Carbon Sink
Forestry companies intent on clearcutting Canada’s boreal forest are spinning themselves green with a technique that should be familiar to climate and energy organizers, anti-tobacco activists, and even an earlier generation of DDT opponents: they’re behaving like climate deniers, according to a peer-reviewed analysis this week in Wildlife Society Bulletin.
“Their goal,” reports The Narwhal, “is to delay habitat protection in Ontario for boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou),” an indicator species for the health of the forest itself—which is in turn a major carbon sink and essential to the effort to bring climate change under control.
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“Successful use of this strategy has weakened environmental protection, undermined public debate on policy solutions, enabled harmful activities to continue long after their danger was scientifically established, and even legitimized campaigns for industrial expansion,” wrote a study team led by ecologist Julee Boan, boreal program manager for Ontario Nature.
“All the ways that industry and government try to shoot the messenger, discredit science, discredit the scientists, and then sow doubt and confusion, and buy time, are rote,” agreed Mark Hebblewhite, associate professor of ungulate habitat ecology at the University of Montana, one of the peer reviewers for Boan’s paper. “There’s nothing new here.”
The industry’s first of three standard tactics is to “question whether environmental degradation is actually happening, rather than [challenging] the goal of protection,” The Narwhal explains, citing Boan and her colleagues. “While skepticism and questioning are part of the scientific process, in these cases, industry interests are challenging conclusions well supported by evidence with opinions based on conjecture.”
The Ontario Forest Industry Association and mayors of some single-industry forestry towns say the caribou aren’t even threatened. But they’re listed under the federal Species At Risk Act, and according to federal government analysis, only 14 of 51 herds will be self-sustaining if current trends are allowed to continue.
“Species conservation is not about a Noah’s ark approach: grab these genes here and there,” Boan told The Narwhal. “It’s about the systems. And we don’t fully know how these systems all work together.”
Citing the Forest Products Association of Canada’s “Caribou Facts” website, the paper points to the companies claiming caribou are actually “healthier” in logged areas, even though the famously shy animals are known to travel many kilometres to permanently avoid logged areas. Companies prefer to blame climate change, rather than their own relentless logging, for declining caribou populations.
“There isn’t one published paper that I can think of directly linking the previous declines of the past 30 years to climate change,” Hebblewhite told The Narwhal. In one major inventory in 2010, “we did not need climate to explain the range retraction of caribou in the country.”
When all else fails, the industry raises the spectre of economic decline and job loss as a result of long-overdue caribou protections. “In fact, say the authors, forestry jobs in Canada have been in decline for two decades because of changing demand for forest products, high labour and energy costs, and declining investment in the sector,” so that forestry only accounted for 0.6% of Ontario jobs in 2013.
But Hebblewhite said the tactics are working to delay action on caribou protection, just as they have with climate action. “Climate change psychology tells us that people need to feel there’s hope to make a decision in the face of uncertainty,” he said. And because “there’s been so much denial about caribou declining for long, scientists have had to beat the drum.”
Public interest communications strategist Jasper Fessman said simple strategic messaging is the best way to turn the tide. “Raising awareness is not, by itself, going to change the problem,” he told The Narwhal’s Erica Giles. “An information campaign does not necessarily counter a disinformation campaign.”
But campaigners can win by making the science simple and easy to understand: If today’s rate of caribou decline is projected into the future, “are there any caribou left? That’s something people understand. If it continues as it is now, we will not have any caribou, and our kids will not remember what a caribou is.”
Another option is to offer a counter to the industry’s narrative, talking about the impact on tourism of losing an iconic wild species. “That’s countering one business interest with another business interest,” he said.
In an opinion piece for The Georgia Straight, environmental icon David Suzuki says the species protection issue gives forestry companies an ulterior motive to recognize climate change as a threat to the boreal.
“There’s no climate science denial, but there is caribou science denial,” he writes. “To downplay the urgent need to protect caribou and manage habitat, and to diminish their own role in boreal caribou declines, forest industry associations are using tactics the fossil fuel industry uses to sow doubt and confusion about scientific evidence.”