Earlier this year, prominent members in the House of Representatives announced that we would soon see "investigations" of climate scientists. Now, the government has moved on to investigating the work of wildlife researchers, and the scientific community is aghast. This is the story of Charles Monnet. You don't know him, but you know his work. And now he is suspended from his job for mysterious reasons.
Charles Monnett is a wildlife researcher with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, (BOEMRE), the government agency charged with extracting energy from underwater coastal land. Monnet wrote the initial paper that has been the basis of the oft-repeated horror stories that polar bears are drowning because there isn't enough ice for them to rest on. On July 18, he was placed on administrative leave pending an inspector general's investigation. But BOEMRE has not explained what the investigation is actually about--not even to Monnett. (Update: The Guardian reports today that on August 9 Monnett will meet with government authorities to discuss "his compliance with government contracting regulations as well as his relationship with the lead researcher, a reputed polar bear scientist, Andrew Derocher.")
According to BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz, "The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong."
On its website, BOEMRE states that it has "undertaken an aggressive overhaul of the offshore oil and natural gas regulatory process." Many environmentalists and scientists suspect that this kind of "aggressive" house-cleaning includes silencing voices from within that may hinder fossil fuel exploitation in the Arctic.
How might this biologist threaten an agency that hands out oil and gas drilling permits? Back in 2004, on an official whale survey cruise aimed at identifying possible effects of future oil development, Monnett and colleagues encountered four dead polar bears floating in the open waters of the Arctic Ocean. Although these animals are strong enough swimmers to count as honorary amphibians, a recent storm kept them in the water for too long and the rough seas may also have made it difficult for them to breathe.
Another key factor, however, was the great distance from the nearest floating ice, where a bear could crawl out and get some rest. More and more summer ice is being lost from the northern sea, due at least in part to climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Could it be that Monnett's peer-reviewed report of this event in the journal Polar Biology works against his bureau's efforts to promote offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska? This possibility is difficult to confirm thanks to a gag order on Monnett and reticence on the part of BOEMRE.
It makes sense, though. Al Gore used that 2006 report as the basis of the heart-breaking polar bear scene in his movie An Inconvenient Truth. Drowning bears have become an iconic symbol of climate change, and BOEMRE's job is to promote the very things that are causing Arctic ice to retreat.
The media is making hay with this story, treating it like a subscription-boosting sequel to the "Climategate" scandal that demonized climate scientist Michael Mann, the author of global temperature data that were also featured in Gore's film. But, as with Mann, Monnett's professional reputation among his scientific peers is impeccable; one polar bear expert told me that Monnett is known as "a stickler for the truth and applying science to management." It seems unlikely that his research is seriously flawed.
You can find out for yourself if you like, because his 2006 paper is posted online (PDF). I see no unsubstantiated information or ideological hype in it. Monnett and his coauthor even say that the 2004 deaths were more likely due to the storm than to global warming. And when they quite reasonably conclude that further sea ice retreat could increase the risk of drowning for bears in the future, they properly couch their propositions amid modifiers such as "may" "we suggest," and "likely."
On the other hand, the closing paragraph might hold a clue to the problem. It begins with "Polar bears swimming offshore risk contact with oil if spilled, and strikes from ships," and then says that these observations "should be considered by analysts and managers relative to marine transportation, ice-breaking, oil and gas development, and other potential activities in open water." Perhaps some managers at BOEMRE don't consider their bear guy to be a team player.
But why did it take the organization five years to respond in this manner? Could it have anything to do with recent pressure from the Obama administration to exploit Arctic fossil fuels? We can't tell until the unseemly shroud of secrecy is pulled back.
Maybe BOEMRE just moves slowly. The organization's website also includes a news flash about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which states, "The Bureau is working with the U.S. Coast Guard and the operator of the drilling rig in securing the well and protecting the environment." The well was actually capped more than a year ago.
Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University. His new book is DEEP FUTURE: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin's Press, March 2011).