Arctic Refuge Hit With Double-Whammy: Climate Change and Oil Development
By Dan Ritzman
Migrations are the heartbeat of life in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Groups of thousands of caribou course across the landscape as they complete the longest migration of any land animal in North America. Arctic terns appear to be avenging angels as they guard their nests on riverside gravel bars; these birds have traveled 12,000 miles from Antarctica to find the perfect nest spot and they will let you know you are not welcome nearby. And I just completed what has become my annual migration. For more than two decades I have been traveling north each summer to experience the endless daylight, vast landscapes and stunning wildlife of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Gwich'in leader Sarah James has been a strong voice for protection of the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, for decades.
Photo credit: Carly Harmon
Point Thompson, the newest oil development in Prudhoe Bay looms just a few miles from the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo credit: Dan Ritzman
A group of military veterans and military family members explore the edge of North America on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
You don't have to be a scientist to see that the coastal plain is the biological heart of our nation's wildest refuge, but if you need the numbers—the coastal plain is the nesting ground for 200 species of birds (who traveled there from every state and six continents), the calving ground and nursery for the Porcupine caribou herd and the most important on-shore denning area in Alaska for polar bears.
Not every animal present on the coastal plain hightails it out once the snow begins to fall, some have amazing adaptations to allow them to overwinter in this severe climate. On my last trip this summer we discovered the skull of a musk ox, a prehistoric-looking shaggy critter that is able to survive the deep cold. A close examination of the skull showed the spiral nasal passages that allow the frozen air the animal breathes to travel further and have more time to warm up as to prevent perpetual brain freeze. Equally fascinating is one of my favorites, the Arctic Wooly Bear Caterpillar. These are the longest lived caterpillars on the planet. They spend 7-14 years as a caterpillar before metamorphosing into a moth. During that time they spend about seven to eight months of the year frozen like a caterpillar popsicle. The three to four months they are thawed out are spent busily munching on the Arctic tundra. It takes them all those "partial" years to store up enough energy to undergo their change.
It isn't just the wildlife that are uniquely adapted to living in this landscape; the Alaska Native peoples who live above the Arctic Circle are intimately connected to the land and its rhythms. Every year Alaska Natives harvest, process, distribute and consume millions of pounds of wild animals, fish and plants through an economy and way of life that has come to be termed "subsistence." Collectively, these varied subsistence activities constitute a way of being and relating to the world and thus comprise an essential component of Alaska Native identities and cultures.
The people and the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge are threatened by the double-whammy of climate change and oil development. Look at any of the recent maps that highlight where the world is warming the fastest and the Alaskan Arctic shows up as a fiery red blob. In fact the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The effects of this can be seen and felt on the ground—less water, more shrubs and trees and I've even noticed the change in the different species of birds showing up in the high north. Most important, the sea ice is disappearing. This disappearance spells trouble for wildlife like polar bears and the Alaska Native peoples who rely on the ice to hunt. It also has caused an increase in coastal erosion and a number of villages in the Arctic will have to be relocated or risk being washed into the sea. Scientists are telling us that the loss of this ice is leading to the unusual weather patterns we are experiencing in the rest of the world. What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic.
The Canning River forms the western boundary of the northern portion of the Arctic Refuge, separating the land owned and managed by the state of Alaska around Prudhoe Bay from the coastal plain and other wildlands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It had been three or four years since I had last floated the Canning to the mountains, across the 30 miles of coastal plain to the coast of the Arctic Ocean. This is one of my favorite rivers, delivering a wide array of landscapes and incredible wildlife from wolves and grizzly bears in the mountains and plains, to snowy owls, yellow billed loons, golden plovers and eiders in the delta and coast. This summer I was dismayed to see a new oil field development rising ominously out of the tundra. Point Thompson is the newest and easternmost expansion of Prudhoe Bay and sits just a dozen or so miles from the edge of the Arctic Refuge. With the flat topography of the coastal plain this industrial site mars the wild character of the land.
This was a wake-up call for me. During the Bush presidency millions of Americans took action to protect the refuge and convinced the decision makes in Washington DC to say no to drilling in the refuge. This place has felt safe from drilling for the past 10 years, but here is a brand new oil field knocking on the door of the coastal plain. Now is not the time to be complacent; now is the time for action.
As a wilderness guide I have had the honor and good fortune to be able to share this special place with adventurers from across the U.S. Over the years I've traveled through this landscape with teachers, machinists, conservationists, veterans, musicians, artists, people from all walks of life and all corners of the country. To a person they have been moved by what they experienced. And many of them have been moved to take action and reached out to key decision makers to say that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge deserves to remain forever wild. A collection of their actions can be seen here.
But the Arctic Refuge doesn't just speak to the people who have had the chance to visit. Like the migratory birds, the idea, the wildness and spirit of the Arctic Refuge touches people in every state and over the years millions of Americans have let it be known that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is too special to drill; it deserves permanent protection.
Now is the time, before the oil fields creep one inch closer to this treasured landscape, to raise our voices and protect the this place once and for all.
Dan Ritzman is the Alaska program director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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