Alaska: State in Denial

I love Alaska. I really do. Not the political jurisdiction; the geographical entity that Michelle shocked felt compelled to remind her fans is the largest in the union. It's full of spectacular, mostly pristine wilderness. There's Denali, the fjords of the panhandle, its salmon, whales, eagles and bears, incomparable glaciers and some of the best aurora viewing on the planet. Too bad, then, that its human population seems hell-bent on doing everything it can to destroy what makes the place special.

The latest affront to reason to emerge from Alaska comes in the form of a lawsuit challenging the federal government's long-delayed but inescapable decision to add the polar bear to the the endangered species list, thanks to the threat posed by disappearing habitat in the form of dwindling ice cover on the Arctic Ocean.

The Republican governor [Sarah Palin] has argued that the ice-dependent polar bear, the first mammal granted Endangered Species Act listing because of global warming, does not need additional protections.

"We believe that the listing was unwarranted and that it's unprecedented to list a currently healthy population based on uncertain climate models," said Alaska Assistant Attorney General Steven Daugherty. (Reuters, May 22)

Not only is this is classic pseudoskeptical global-warming denial language ;;;;; there's no such thing as a "certain" climate model and never will be ;;;;; but everyone knows that the climate's fate has nothing to do with Alaska's objection to the listing. What Alaska's political and business elite fear is the consequences for the petroleum transnationals, which will find it rather more challenging to drill for fossil fuels anywhere the home range of a "threatened" species.

The decision to list the polar bear because of expected future threats to populations that are not in decline at the moment (at least, not in Alaska) represents a major step forward and a tacit recognition of the challenges posed by climate change. But Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne went out of his way to undermine the legal effects of the law by "precluding any new restrictions on oil and gas operations as a result of the listing." Either Alaska isn't paying attention, or it knows that invoking exemption 4(d) won't stand up in court, because the Endangered Species Act specifically requires decisions be based exclusively on science, not economics.

I suspect the latter. Mostly because this isn't the first time Alaska's politicians have demonstrated their contempt for science. Earlier in May, the state legislature voted to spend $2 million of its citizens' money to fund and promote an "academic based" conference on contrarian climate research. So bizarre was this decision that it prompted one the best paragraphs ever to grace the top of a story in the Anchorage Daily News. On May 4, Tom Kizzia began his story with:

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon -- researchers just have to fill in the science part.

That's quite a bold description for an ostensibly objective reporter. But read on:

The state-funded conference will focus on science, according to a budget justification introduced with the original request. "Research shall be non-biased to specific groups' opinion and shall present scientifically fact based outcomes," the statement said.

But the point is not to seek some non-biased measure of scientific truth. The point, said [House Speaker John] Harris, is to provide a forum for scientists whose views back Alaska's interests.

This trumps even the Heartland Institute's pathetic attempt to mount a scientific conference on contrarian climate research earlier this year. That effort, as Kizzia notes, drew either apathy or scorn from genuine scientists and the media (with the notable exception of Fox News, of course). "Stories prominently quoted critics who likened participants to the Flat Earth Society."

Which is a little ironic. If there' s anywhere on the planet where the sun's motion through the sky makes it obvious we don't live on a flat earth, it's Alaska.

But Alaska is full of irony. It's residents like to think of themselves as independent frontier-types, working hard to carve a semblance of civilization out of an harsh environment. But nowhere else in America is "independent" is less applicable. Each Alaskan gets hundreds of dollars a year in royalties from the oil companies, simply for being an Alaskan. The health of the state's primary economic engine doesn't prevent the country from treating Alaska as developing nation, however. No other state receives so much federal assistance as Alaska. In 2004, for example, it took in $12,200 per person, which was more than twice what the true frontier champs in Nevada got.

Not that socialism is a bad thing. Canadians living north of 60°N also get ridiculous amounts of tax benefits and subsidies courtesy of the generosity of their southern compatriots. But at least Canadians don't pretend they're the archetype frontiersmen.

I will grant Alaskans praise for one thing, though. Even though they don't seem to understand the scientific process (hint: conclusions come at the end), at least they acknowledge, in the form of serious budget appropriations, that science is worth supporting. By contrast, Canada has an abysmal record when it comes to scientific research on the Arctic. There are more non-Canadians conducting research in the polar regions than Canadians, and that's even more embarrassing.

Eye candy shot: OARS


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To be consistent, Alaska must stop all taxation, since it is based on uncertain economic models.

By Bill the Cat (not verified) on 26 May 2008 #permalink

Maybe the new state motto should be:

"Great Place to visit, etc."

Hacknayed, but becoming a bit too apropos.

By BobbyEarle (not verified) on 26 May 2008 #permalink

How "certain" are the models showing which areas are most promising for oil drilling?

"To be consistent, Alaska must stop all taxation, since it is based on uncertain economic models."

To be fair, Alaska has no state sales or income tax. (I realize you're mirroring Palin's unfortunate comment re: climate change, but your sarcasm is closer to the truth than you're apparently aware.)

I also don't believe Mr. Hrynyshyn realizes how expensive it can be to live here, or in what conditions many live here, but then, I also recognize he isn't saying welfare is necessarily a bad thing.

Palin's comments do reflect poorly on all Alaskans, but I feel compelled to mention she doesn't speak for all of us, not by a long shot. And there are those of us who live here and vigorously oppose her thinking.

"The health of the state's primary economic engine doesn't prevent the country from treating Alaska as developing nation, however."

I feel compelled to mention that a very large percentage of Alaska residents live in third world conditions. When was the last time you used a honey bucket or boiled your drinking water in order to kill pathogens?

ScottE is right: the administration doesn't speak for everyone. Making blanket statements about all Alaskans is unfair. We're not sitting up here conspiring against polar bears, destroying the environment, and sitting on our butts while we watch the free money roll in. Your portrayal of Alaska residents is inaccurate.

Azkyroth: "How 'certain' are the models showing which areas are most promising for oil drilling?"

Just what I was thinking. The climate models giveth, the climate models taketh away.

I wonder how much Gov. Palin's climate denialism relates to her evolution denialism. (She came out as an equal-timer during the '06 campaign.) Polar bears are doing fine now, she says, so it doesn't matter what happens to their fitness when their environment changes.