September 9, 2011

Pika politics and climate change

Look at the cute little pika! So cute! So... controversial??? One of my professors at Arizona State University studies pikas, little critters that are found in both North America and Central Asia, and is entrenched in an unusual debate between environmentalists and the government. I'm going to paraphrase a bit from a presentation he gave to our lab group and then discuss the science policy behind it.

North American pikas are a focal point of the climate change agenda among conservationists in the American west. This is because pikas live in the mountains, and with rising temperatures due to climate change, it is feared that they will soon run out of habitat at high enough altitudes to stay cool. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not so, according to my professor. While the conservationists are lobbying for pikas to be listed as endangered, he believes they are using shaky science.
In the advocates' claim for [endangered species] listing, Andrew Smith of Arizona State University sees a case of going overboard, and extending implications from limited studies. 
In his own work in Bodie, Calif., begun in 1969, Smith said he found pika capable of adapting to temperature swings by haying at night, instead of during the day, if it is too warm. He also has found the animals at low elevations, where they were not documented previously, complicating the theory that pikas are being chased relentlessly upslope. 
"We really think pikas are at risk, and we should learn more about them, and be monitoring them at lower elevations," Smith said. "They should tell us an incredible amount about climate change. But they are not endangered." (Seattle Times, 2009)
He thinks that environmental groups have picked the pika as a poster child for climate change based on values (such as conservation ethics) over scientific fact, and that they repeatedly cherry-pick data that supports their cause rather than the broader scientific consensus. While the lobby groups claim that pikas are disappearing before our eyes, others note that the western mountains are literally crawling with pikas. Scientists are working to take censuses of pika populations, but this is arduous and can reflect changes other than climate. So the question is, what will happen if the pikas don't disappear? Will we give up on climate change mitigation policy? Will science lose credibility? These are familiar questions to anyone who studies scientific controversies.

Environmentalists have long held a tenuous relationship with science- they both distrust it, and use it to their advantage in legal battles. Science has the power of legitimacy, and making visible the invisible. The case of agricultural biotechnology (GMOs), and how environmental advocates use science, is strikingly similar to the pika controversy. Small degrees of scientific uncertainty become major points of contention, and unfortunately the environmentalists and scientists seem to be speaking directly past each other. I will refer you to my past post to highlight this point. Roger Pielke Jr. would call this a politicized scientific debate. As he argues in The Honest Broker, we should use science to highlight a range of possible policy options, rather than a narrowly defined, predetermined political position. Implicit in the entire pika debate, as with the polar bears, is that in order to save the pikas, we must limit our carbon emissions.

Should scientists speak up and advocate against the environmental lobbyists? Or aim to provide a more robust understanding of the science and policy implications of climate change on animal populations? Can conservationists promote their own agenda without using dubious science?

Until next time, check out this new blog by some of my former MSU professors.


  1. I was hoping, based on the title, that the structures of pika society were changing due to pressures induced by climate change. That would be an interesting fact indeed.

  2. LOL, that is not the case, that I know of....


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