Editor's Note: Watch Randi Kaye's interview with Rick Steiner on Sarah Palin's environmental record tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET.
Professor, University of Alaska
While I disagree with many of Senator John McCain’s policies and I was not planning to vote for him, I was willing to concede that he may at least make a wise, rational president and represent a step in the right direction for the nation – an acceptable second choice. No longer. With his pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, he has shown a spectacular, even dangerous, lack of judgment. What is not important here is the glitz and glamour, the appearance of the candidates, and the number of balloons at the conventions. What is critically important are the decisions either ticket would make in Washington on the issues we all care about, and how they would make those decisions.
In addition to her frightening lack of qualification to be vice president (much less president and commander-in-chief) of the United States, Palin is an evangelical, anti-choice, pro-gun, right wing conservative that wants creationism taught in schools. She is currently under investigation by the Alaska Legislature for alleged abuse of office in firing the state’s public safety commissioner over a family feud. Many of us in Alaska simply cannot imagine Palin having anything to do with U.S. foreign policy, domestic policy, national defense or the countless other affairs of federal governance.
And a particularly worrisome aspect of the Palin candidacy is her abysmal record on the environment during her 2 years as Alaska governor, and how that would translate into national environmental policy if she became Vice President. Her environmental record as Governor of the nation’s “last frontier” deserves close examination.
- Climate Change - Although Alaska is ground zero in the crisis of global warming, Palin has done virtually nothing to address the problem except hold meetings and appoint a ‘climate sub-cabinet’ that likewise has done little. Lots of talk, no action. Although in the last 2 years the Arctic summer sea ice shrunk to the lowest levels recorded, Palin apparently does not believe it is human-induced or cause for alarm. She was asked to establish an Alaska Office on Climate Change, an Alaska Climate Response Fund (based on a tax on Alaska oil production), and emissions reduction targets for Alaska, but has taken no action on these requests. The climate strategy her administration is developing is largely a plan to get more federal dollars to pay for infrastructure projects here. She and her commissioners conspicuously avoid discussing the urgent need to reduce global carbon emissions. After all, producing carbon (oil, gas, coal) that ultimately winds up in the global atmosphere is a big business in Alaska. About 85% of state government revenue comes from oil taxes and royalties. Anything that might further restrict oil development (such as another endangered species listing) is always vigorously opposed by state government and industry here. Palin and her political supporters are in denial on the issue of climate change, against the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, and even the professed position of her running mate. We have lost at least 20 years in addressing the climate crisis through government apathy and denial, and we can ill-afford to lose another decade on this.
- Polar bears – This summer, Palin filed suit against the Bush administration over the federal listing of polar bears as threatened, saying that her opposition was based on a ‘comprehensive scientific review.’ But when asked to release the scientific review, she refused. Later obtained by the public (from the federal government), the document clearly shows that, contrary to Palin’s assertions, the state of Alaska’s marine mammal scientists agreed with the federal conclusions that the polar bears are in serious trouble due to global warming and loss of their sea ice habitat, and that they would be gone from Alaska by 2050. Palin clearly decided to oppose the listing in order to protect arctic oil and gas development from future legal challenge, then publicly misrepresented the basis for her decision, and then tried to conceal all of this. Having run for office on a platform of honesty and transparency, this behavior was neither. Her extreme position here puts her to the political right of the Bush / Cheney administration. While polar bear numbers recovered somewhat since the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited sport hunting of polar bears in Alaska, their sea ice habitat is so rapidly deteriorating now that they will with certainty decline. The only 2 polar bear populations that have been studied for a long time are now declining, and most of the rest are projected to decline rapidly as well.
- Endangered species – Earlier this year, Palin approved a $2 million dollar state appropriation for a conference on the “economic impacts” of the Endangered Species Act, designed to persuade the public that ESA listings were too costly and unwarranted. Recently she agreed to use the money instead to fund the state’s lawsuit against the Bush administration over the polar bear listing - a likely violation of the state constitutional provisions on appropriation. She opposes additional species listings and other protections in Alaska (including Beluga whales in Cook Inlet here in Anchorage), where many species are at risk due to climate change, habitat loss, overexploitation, and other threats. Alaska has 17 species already listed as threatened, endangered, depleted, most of them marine mammals and birds. And, several other species are currently proposed as candidates for listing: Cook Inlet beluga whales, walrus, ribbon seal, black-footed albatross, Lynn Canal herring, Queen Charlotte goshawk, Kittlitz’s murrelet, yellow-billed loons, as well as several other ice-dependent seals which are under review for listing. The appropriate state government response to the many endangered species in Alaska would be to admit the problem, identify solutions, and work diligently toward the recovery of all the threatened species and their habitats. For the many Arctic Ocean species threatened by sea-ice loss due to global warming, the state needs to advocate urgent reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the collapse of the entire Arctic Ocean ecosystem, and other mitigations (such as protecting polar bear habitat from offshore drilling) to give these species the best chance of recovery. We have an ethical, moral, and legal obligation to protect threatened species and their habitats, and the current state of Alaska denial of this obligation is a profound betrayal of public trust. Our planet is in an extinction crisis, and Alaska has placed itself on the wrong side of this issue – a blunder of historic proportion.
- Predator control – Palin approved and expanded the state’s aerial predator control program, where wolves are shot from aircraft and bears (and even bear cubs) are hunted from aircraft and killed upon landing. This year, her state biologists even dragged 14 newborn wolf pups from their den and, having already shot their parents, then shot each of the pups in the head at close range. Last year, her administration offered a $150 bounty for each wolf killed until the bounty was ruled illegal by the courts. Hundreds of wolves are killed each year by this antiquated state program that has no scientific justification whatsoever, but rather is designed to appease Palin’s urban sport hunting supporters. Out of an Alaska wolf population of 7,000 – 11,000 wolves, each year from 1,000 – 2,000 are killed through trapping, hunting, and shooting from aircraft. Under this program, anyone here in Alaska is able to hop in an airplane, find wolves, run them to exhaustion, and then shoot them - all ostensibly to increase moose and caribou populations for hunters. Science has yet to demonstrate a biological emergency in moose and caribous numbers here that would necessitate such a control program.
- Mining – Palin aggressively opposed the “clean water initiative” on the August ballot in Alaska (which then failed), favoring instead foreign mining company desires for fewer government regulations controlling their toxic effluent into salmon streams. She has supported virtually any and all mining proposals that come her way, even likely the enormous Pebble gold and copper mine proposed in the Bristol Bay watershed, putting at risk the largest runs of sockeye salmon in the world, where this summer fishermen caught over 27 million salmon.
- Oil and gas drilling – Palin has supported oil and gas drilling plans anywhere in Alaska, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the central arctic, much of the Arctic Ocean, and in fish-rich Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet. On her watch, regulation and government oversight of Alaska oil facilities is terribly lacking, and she has declined to establish a citizens’ advisory council to provide more effective public oversight of the expanding oil and gas operations in arctic Alaska.
- Exxon Valdez oil spill damages – Palin refuses to push Exxon to pay the government for the unanticipated environmental injuries from the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Almost 20 years later, the private case is still unresolved and the governments likewise have yet to collect full payment from Exxon. Government science shows that most of the species and resources injured by the Exxon Valdez spill have still not fully recovered. And shortly before Palin took office in 2006, the governments presented Exxon with a demand to pay $92 million for this additional environmental damage, but Exxon has not paid, and Palin has not taken Exxon to court to collect the money. Meanwhile, Exxon reaps record profits from Alaska.
- Trans Pacific shipping – Palin has been asked repeatedly by coastal residents and organizations to enhance the safety of merchant shipping through Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a primary shipping route between Asia and North America, but she’s done nothing. Citizens want better vessel tracking, powerful rescue tugs along the route, and a risk assessment. While her predecessor funded a scoping study, the Palin administration has not appropriated one dime to improve shipping safety through the Aleutians, and says it will take no further action to reduce risk for several years into the future. As some 8,000 ships transit this route each year, many of them oil and chemical tankers, Palin is essentially rolling the dice and exposing this region to unacceptable risk of an oil spill larger than the Exxon Valdez.
The pattern is clear. Each time Palin has been confronted with a choice between short-term business interests and the environment, she has sided with short-term business interests. On the environment, Sarah Palin is essentially George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and perhaps James Watt rolled into one, but with a more pleasant demeanor.
The next federal administration will have enormous environmental challenges to address both here and globally - energy, climate, pollution, habitat loss, ocean degradation, population and consumption, species extinction, deforestation, failing water and food systems, invasive species, and so on. The integrity of our home planet’s biosphere has been rapidly deteriorating for the past 50 years, and we either act now to reverse the decline, or we will most certainly foreclose any chance of a sustainable future. And if McCain / Palin win in November, the environment clearly loses, and we may well miss our last best chance to secure a sustainable future. At a time when the nation and world urgently need strong environmental leadership from the United States, it is important to carefully consider the environmental implications of our vote in November.