Caribou

Extinction deniers? Forestry industry undermines caribou conservation with climate denial tactics

Caribou are the latest victims of a disinformation playbook all too familiar to climate scientists

Deny the problem, dispute the cause, claim the cost is too high: these tactics have worked to delay regulations on DDT, tobacco, carbon dioxide pollution and other interests.

Now these methods are being deployed in Canada by forestry corporations and other extractive industries, according to a paper published Monday in Wildlife Society Bulletin. Their goal is to delay habitat protection in Ontario for boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), a threatened species.

“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,” write the authors.

The paper compares climate denial tactics with these efforts to block protections for caribou habitat. Both campaigns deploy deception, misdirection and fake news to manufacture uncertainty, said lead author Julee Boan, an ecologist and boreal program manager for Ontario Nature.

The caribou are supposed to be protected by the Species at Risk Act, which came into force in 2003 and requires provincial and federal governments to protect habitat and develop recovery plans to avoid localized extinction. But all over Canada, these tactics have delayed habitat protection, and caribou numbers continue to drop.

“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,” said Mark Hebblewhite, associate professor of ungulate habitat ecology at the University of Montana, who happened to be on the peer-review panel for Boan’s paper. “There’s nothing new here.”

He recites the playbook he’s heard in his work on caribou conservation in Canada: “No 1. Caribou aren’t declining. But if they were declining … it’s not caused by humans. And even if it has to do with humans, it’s because of climate change.”

Tactic No. 1: Deny there’s a problem

As public awareness of environmental problems and sympathy for them rises, some industrial interests have learned that it’s better to question whether environmental degradation is actually happening, rather than the goal of protection, says the paper.

This complexity of ecosystems and the nature of the scientific method — never achieving 100 per cent certainty because it remains open to new evidence — makes it vulnerable to industry attacks. 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.

“Skepticism is based in truth-seeking; manufactured uncertainty is willful ignorance,” says the paper.

The Ontario Forest Industry Association and mayors of some forestry-dependent communities have disputed that caribou are threatened at all, citing population numbers for all caribou in Canada (although those figures are suspect, as one group said there were 1.28 million and another said more than 2.5 million). But, Boan said, that line of argument ignores the federal government’s Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada that said caribou’s different subspecies and eco-types (boreal, mountain, and migratory) are all “irreplaceable parts of Canada’s biodiversity.”  

The different caribou eco-types behave in different ways and evolved in different environments, Boan said. “Species conservation is not about a Noah’s ark approach: grab these genes here and there. It’s about the systems. And we don’t fully know how these systems all work together.”

Boan and her coauthors also detail instances of industry saying the science isn’t clear. In fact, boreal caribou are “one of the most well researched animals in Canada,” Boan said. Hebblewhite emphatically concurs. “Within one year in 2012, there were 1,700 caribou radio collared in Canada. There are hundreds of studies saying … they’re declining. It’s probably as certain as climate change studies that, No. 1, they’re declining, and no. 2, the declines are caused by humans.”

Tactic No. 2: Deny the cause of caribou declines

Despite numerous studies showing that human-caused habitat destruction and fragmentation — from forestry, oil and gas developing, mining and mineral exploration and hydroelectric, according to a 2012 report from Environment Canada — is the reason for caribou population declines, industrial interests continue to argue a lack of evidence.

This “Caribou Facts” website from the Forest Products Association of Canada gives a taste of industry arguments. Among them: It claims that boreal caribou populations are “healthier” in logged areas. And it claims that climate change is a significant factor in caribou declines.

“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 said. As part of a critical habitat review in 2010, “We did not need climate to explain the range retraction of caribou in the country.”

Of course climate change will be a concern in the future, he said. But declines to date are primarily caused by cumulative disturbance from industrial activity.

Tactic No. 3: Too expensive to fix, so shoot the messenger

Whether fighting climate change or caribou habitat protection, industries often threaten economic decline and loss of jobs. For caribou conservation, those fears are stoked primarily by the forestry industry, says the study.

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.

Although the forestry sector accounted for just 0.6 percent of Ontario jobs in 2013, the industry message is getting through, Boan said. At a debate in Thunder Bay ahead of the recent election, the first question from the moderator was about the Endangered Species Act (ESA), she said.

“The way they framed it, the ESA was being pushed by well-funded environmentalists that have no understanding or stake in Northern Ontario and used fear-mongering tactics rather than science to push their agenda. This is the moderator. Not a member of the public.”

More information is not the answer

“These tactics are clear as day,” Hebblewhite said, “visible from 100,000 feet.” But they are working. Many studies on climate denialism have investigated why. “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.”

They’ve repeated their studies and their message that caribou are declining over and over, he said, “to the point where the average member of the public is like, “Oh, my god. These caribou are screwed.” That feeling of helplessness wedges the door open for the government and industry to not act to save them, Hebblewhite said.

Also playing roles are two psychological traits, said Jasper Fessman, public-interest communications strategist and professor of strategic communications at the University of West Virginia. They are confirmation bias — the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation your existing beliefs — and uncertainty avoidance, societal anxiety about uncertainty that leads people to minimize it or retreat from it.

He has a quibble with Boan’s paper: it doesn’t include a call to action.

“Raising awareness is not, by itself, going to change the problem,” he said. “An information campaign does not necessarily counter a disinformation campaign.”

Simple messaging wins the day

The best way of countering strategic communications is with better strategic communications, he said.

Boan’s paper says the complicated nature of caribou science, especially the different eco-types, is challenging for people to understand, so she tries to explain it. A better approach, Fessman said, would be to break it down into simple, easily graspable concepts. For example, if scientists project rates of decline over 100 years, “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?”

It may seem faintly ridiculous or counter to scientists’ nature to oversimplify and state the obvious to such a degree. But that is what the data indicates, Fessman said, so scientists would be saying something true. And industry is succeeding with equally simple — although often untrue — messages.

Also effective is to counter industry narratives with other relevant narratives. For example, when the forestry industry cites lost forestry jobs, talk about the impact on tourism because people want to see caribou or at least know that this symbol of wild Canada still exists. “That’s countering one business interest with another business interest,” he said, pointing to similar conservation efforts that have proved extremely effective in some African countries.

Despite the federal requirements to save the caribou, in Ontario, forestry industry lobbying, including these denial strategies, is working. The industry has repeatedly won provincial exemptions from requirements to recover caribou populations.

“For all intents and purposes they’ve never been subjected to recovery requirements since the law came into force in 2007,” Boan said.

And on the federal level, a recent report on the progress of caribou recovery, “looks like it could have been written by industry, instead of by a government worried about the effects of industry on caribou habitat,” Hebblewhite said. “It’s like this industry apologia, that industry is trying really hard, they’re doing everything they can.”

These machinations have serious consequences, Boan said. “This denial is delaying caribou conservation.”

Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco. Her…

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