Half-baked Alaskan science bears closer scutiny

They say the first casualty in war is the truth. The same surely applies to elections, and none more so than the crucial US election on November 4th next. Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin has shown a startling contempt for science, as I previously reported in the Irish Times. Now we find that she and her officials in the Alaskan government drew on the work of a number of scientists known to be sceptical about the dangers and causes of global warming, to back efforts to stop polar bears being protected as an endangered species. Some of these same scientists were funded by the oil industry, surprise surprise.

In submissions to the US government’s consultation on the status of the polar bear, Palin referred to at least six scientists who have questioned either the existence of warming as a largely man-made phenomenon or its severity. One paper was partly paid for by oil company ExxonMobil.

I went head to head with one of these “experts”, Dr Willie Soon on Newstalk with Karen Coleman at the weekend. Willie reckons global warming is all about “solar variations” and that CO2 (and hence emissions we produce) is unimportant. Willie got very vexed when I suggested to him the basic physics, as explained in the 1890s by the brilliant Swede, Svente Ahhrenius, who calculated that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would lead to global temperature increases of 5-6 degrees. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has borne out the accuracy of his calculations.

Apart from being a major recipient of oil company funding, Dr Soon is also an alumnus of the George C. Marshall Institute, an ultra right wing ‘think tank’ set up during the Reagan administration in 1984. The Marshall Institute has spent almost the last 20 years leading a propaganda battle against the science – and scientists themselves – of climate change. Dr Soon is, in essence, not a person whose opinion on climate-related matters has an iota of merit. After our on-air debate I was struck by the thought that the anti-GW brigade really are scraping the bottom of the barrell in the ever-diminishing calibre of spokespeople they are now capable of fielding.

Back in Alaska, the polar bear has become caught in the crossfire of an intensely politicised debate on global warming. Last May the US department of the interior threw out the dodgy list of objections assembled by Palin’s hired guns and listed the bear as a threatened species. It warned that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears were likely to be extinct by 2050 due to the rapid melt of sea ice. Palin hit back by suing the federal government. The case will be heard next January, the same month, incidentally, that the new president will be inaugurated. If Palin ends up in the White House, environmentalists may soon have to downgrade George W Bush to being only the second most anti-environmental senior politician in American history.

As the Guardian pointed out, though the state of Alaska hasn’t a single polar bear specialist on its staff, the governor’s stance “has pitted it against the combined scientific fire-power of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, and world experts on the mammal”.

In Palin’s lawsuit, Alaska said it opposed the endangered label partly because the listing would “deter activities such as … oil and gas exploration and development”. Oil companies recently bid $2.7bn for rights to explore the Chuckchi sea, an established polar bear habitat. Every man, woman and child in Alaska gets large amounts of cash directly into their pockets from the oil companies, hence their compliance in this systematic rape and pillage of one of the world’s few remaining great natural reserves.

The threatened species status might also slow up the building of an Alaskan natural gas pipeline, which Palin has called the “will of God”. Let’s not forget here that Palin has publicly advocated the teaching of Creationism (i.e. Bible stories) as “science” in Alaska’s schools. In a letter last year to the US interior secretary, she said she believed the polar bear population was “abundant, stable and unthreatened by direct human activity”. She opposed the call for the listing because it “did not use the best available scientific and commercial information”. By which, she doubtless means the best science oil money can buy.

Her own Alaskan review of the science drew on a joint paper by seven authors, four of whom were well-known climate change contrarians. Her paper argued that it was “certainly premature, if not impossible” to link temperature rise in Alaska with human CO2 emissions.

Even ExxonMobil (they of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska) is finding being on the same side as Palin, Willie Soon and other assorted wackos is getting just plain embarrassing. In May it announced that it was no longer funding Marshall and other groups linked with anti-GW views. It said this was to avoid “distraction from the need to provide energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions”.

Palin recently accepted that the Alaskan climate was changing (you’d have to be blind as well as stupid to deny it) but added: “I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made”. Whatever about the polar bear, our collective goose is well and truly cooked if this person is on the winning ticket in November.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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