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Polar bear
Alaska Dispatch, January 2, 2010

Let's fight climate change, not the ESA
By Dr. Natalie Dawson

The Alaska Legislature is willing to pay $1.5 million for a conference and public relations campaign to persuade Congress to limit the Endangered Species Act and launch a program to "reverse the negative economic effects from (Endangered Species Act) listings based on climate change." Their primary concern: The Endangered Species Act will create negative economic impacts for the state of Alaska by impeding development.

I suggest, instead, that we reverse the negative economic effects from ESA listings based on climate change by slowing climate change, prominently placing Alaska, with its continually growing body of university researchers, government scientists, environmental advocates, and local citizens, in an international leadership role to solve the climate crisis. If we can tackle the threats to climate change in Alaska, such as the ongoing erosion of coastal communities, the loss of sea ice habitat for multiple arctic species and the loss of subsistence lifestyle as species disappear, we will not need to hire a PR campaign to fight the "negative impacts of Endangered Species Act listings" because we will not need Endangered Species Act listings.

As the rest of the world watches international leaders in Copenhagen make significant efforts to curb the climate crisis on an international level, our local leaders in Alaska choose to stick their heads in the sand about the climate crisis, the loss of our precious natural resources, of species that are iconic in our children's books written by Alaskan authors, species that are the basis of lifestyle for so many Alaskans. The Alaska Legislature is behind the times, willing to spend over a million dollars to ask the question, "Should polar bears be listed under the Endangered Species Act?" That question has been answered; the best available science says "yes," and they are listed as threatened. If we hire a PR firm to search for an answer they cannot find, soon we will not have "threatened" polar bears in Alaska, we will have "endangered" polar bears in Alaska.

Let's move on. Instead of fighting a myth, let's instead work together on the reality of finding solutions to our growing environmental catastrophes in the arctic. We cannot expect other states to step up to bat for us. We cannot expect the federal government to hold our hand as our sea ice melts, our villages erode, our polar bears disappear, our bowhead whales change migration patterns, and our walruses end up trampled to death on the shore. We have the ability, as well as a duty, to lead the country in solving a climate crisis by starting with our home turf. We are an arctic state. We could have the strongest voice in the country. Instead, we choose to spend money to squelch our own screams.

The Alaska Legislature does not represent all of the state's citizens, neither does it mimic the voice of the majority. However, it is going to launch a campaign to fight the ominous "endangered species monster." As years progress, and we continue to stick our heads in the sand, we will continue to lose the natural treasures that define Alaska and set us apart from nearly every other location on the planet. We will be looking for another PR firm, one that can help us try to save face as we deplete our own resources and rake our own landscapes clean of iconic, almost legendary species such as the polar bear and walrus. We will probably be a poor state by then, because tourism will tank, money garnered from resource extraction will be spent on restoring communities on the brink of disaster, and we will be in severe debt to the federal government because disasters -- including flooding, erosion, and ecosystem collapse -- will cost more money than we can generate with the trickle of oil and gas reserves that will be left at that time. So, I am guessing we might not start the bidding at $1.5 million, trying to attract New York City PR firms with no basic knowledge of life in the Arctic. No, we might just have to look for volunteers.

Anchorage resident Dr. Natalie Dawson is a staff scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton