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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Ask the Polar Bears about Global Warming

Well, the temperature reads nine degrees outside right now, and yesterday it was ten degrees before sun-up, and the snow that fell a week ago Friday remains frozen in place on lawns and sidewalks across New England—just the kind of weather that brings out hokey newspaper cartoons and morning-radio weather-report blather contrasting fears of global warming with the unseasonably cold weather outside.

Those disk jockeys and cartoonists wouldn’t be joking, however, if they bothered to read the article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about the fate of polar bears. Scientists for the first time have documented multiple deaths of polar bears off Alaska, where they likely drowned after swimming long distances in the ocean amid the melting of the Arctic ice shelf. The bears spend most of their time hunting and raising their young on ice floes. In a quarter-century of aerial surveys of the Alaskan coastline before 2004, researchers from the U.S. Minerals Management Service said they typically spotted a lone polar bear swimming in the ocean far from ice about once every two years. Polar-bear drownings were so rare that they have never been documented in the surveys. But in September 2004, when the polar ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of the northern coast of Alaska, researchers counted 10 polar bears swimming as far as 60 miles offshore. Polar bears can swim long distances but have evolved to mainly swim between sheets of ice, scientists say. Hmmm. The polar ice cap is, in fact—no matter what the thermometer reads in southern New England on an early December morning—retreating.

Does it matter? I guess that depends on your point of view.

You could take the shorter-term view, as expressed by Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize winning game-theory economist, who told the Wall Street Journal last month:

In the U.S., if you don’t worry about ecological damage, species extinction and things of that sort; if you don’t worry about what happens in Bangladesh or Indonesia or Brazil; if you figure air conditioning will always take care of your weather problems; then I would say with one or two exceptions, you probably don’t have to get too scared. In that case, you might look at the fact that polar bears are drowning and, therefore, the ice cap is retreating, as an opportunity to make money buying the oil drilling stocks that will eventually benefit from the opening of the Arctic oil deposits to exploitation as the ice cover recedes.

Or you could take the longer term view that Professor Schelling also provided—although I warn that it might make you spit out your morning coffee:

One exception is there is a body of ice in Antarctica called the West Antarctic ice sheet. It is anchored by some islands, but warming the water surrounding it might cause it to slide into the ocean. The estimate is that that would raise sea level by as much as 20 feet. That means to go from the White House to the Capitol, you go by boat. In other words, the movement of one ice sheet could make the Berkshires beach-front property.

“In the long run,” John Maynard Keynes famously quipped, “we’re all dead.” The industrialized nations of the world are making sure the human race doesn’t go down alone.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up © 2005 Jeff Matthews

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations.

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