Palin's Polar Bear Problem

Scientists and comedians alike have derided vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin over her denial of human responsibility for global warming. Palin has repeated in interviews and debates that the "the world's weather patterns are cyclical" and that "over history there have been cooling and warming trends" that explain climate change. She also claims that polar bear populations are stable, not endangered as scientists report.

If Palin's against-the-grain views were simple matters of scientific disagreement, then it would be convenient to ignore her. But, as governor of Alaska, her theories have dire consequences because of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves that lie below the Arctic ice carpet. Over 130 billion barrels of these fossil fuels may be available from the Arctic Circle. Tapping these reserves would fuel the kind of consumption that leads to more aggressive global warming through greenhouse gas emissions.

Alaskans will have to live with the consequences of those emissions regardless of any effort to reverse climate change. But the Arctic sea ice is retreating much more vigorously than scientists ever imagined, and some propose it'll be gone by the next decade. The subsequent sea rise and releasing of carbons from permafrost thaw could lead to flooding in close-to-coast cities, intensified storms and the extinction of entire ecosystems.

Polar bears, largest of all bear species, would be among the major casualties. They use the sea ice to trot for seals, which are their primary feed. Without the ice beneath their feet, bears would starve or resort to cannibalism. Many young bears would break thin ice and drown. The survivors would acclimate to land, hungry for seal-meat replacements, and wind up in us-or-them confrontations likely to end with a gun.

In May, Palin made sweeping cuts to her state's budget, but preserved $2 million for a conference to debate polar bear endangerment. In her Jan. 5 New York Times op-ed, Palin argued that polar bears are "numerous," and that populations in the South Beaufort Sea have been "relatively stable for the last 20 years according to federal analysis."

Not so. The U.S. Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species ruling on polar bears states clearly that for the South Beaufort Sea polar bears, "The predicted trend is declining, and the status is designated as reduced." Of the 19 existing polar bear populations, the two with the most extensive time-data analysis -- Western Hudson Bay (Canada) and Southern Beaufort Sea -- are considered in decline. Palin's true ire with the listing was revealed when she complained in the op-ed that animal protection groups "want the listing to force the government to either stop or severely limit any public or private action that produces, or even allows, the production of greenhouse gases."

The action Palin wants government to take is unbridled offshore drilling, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge region whose western coastal border begins in Prudhoe Bay, already home to the U.S.' largest oil field, and swings east through the South Beaufort Sea. Also, the 1,715-mile-long Alaska gas pipeline Palin has been fighting to build would begin at a treatment plant in Prudhoe Bay as well.

Here's where the polar bears will pose a problem for Palin's plans. On Oct. 6, the Interior Department set deadlines to grant "critical habitat" status to polar bears, which would restrict any activity that would "adversely modify" the bears' natural dwelling. Specific locations in Alaska for this designation aren't yet determined, but they will likely to be those areas where bear populations are declining -- the areas where Palin wants to "drill, baby, drill."

The Alaska governor's information, meanwhile, appear as thin as the Arctic summer ice sheets. When she wrote that "polar bears are more now than they were 40 years ago," she may have been comparing the total global polar bear population, numbered around 25,000, to numbers reported from the 1960s when over-hunting almost annihilated the great white bears. Or, she's referring to the oft-cited 1960s estimate of 5,000 , which appears to have originated with the Russians. Over-hunting is believed to have decimated polar bear numbers in the 1960s, but a 1973 international treaty that placed strict controls on hunting led to a population reversal. Yet, no one really knows how many bears there were to begin with. Scientists call the 5k estimate a "WAG" -- a "wild ass guess."

Polar bear specialist Jack Lentfert served on the board of the International Polar Bear Specialist Group in the 1970s. The PBSG's "major concern at that time," Lentfert said, "was that we did not have good estimations. Our resolutions called for better techniques for determining population size."

Regardless of the numbers, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that by mid-century, two-thirds of all polar bears will be ghosts. Unconvinced, Palin fired off a letter to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne when he proposed the threatened listing for polar bears, saying, "The consequences of listing the polar bear will have widespread social and economic impacts without providing any more protection for the bears." In August, Palin filed a legal complaint against the Interior Department over the listing.

The complaint accuses Kempthorne of failing to use "the best scientific and commercial data available" in determining the bears' status, and even questions citations of conservative scientific data projecting that Arctic sea ice would melt away within 45 years (the complaint challenges whether or not 45 years could legally be considered "the foreseeable future"). The Guardian reported that Palin leaned on a report titled "Polar Bears of Western Hudson Bay and Climate Change" to defend her view. The report was co-sponsored by the Science and Public Policy Institute, funders of global warming deniers, and co-authored by two scientists, Willie Soon and David Legates, both of whom passionately share skepticism for polar bear jeopardy and anthropogenic causes of climate change.

Soon has been criticized by scientists for having ExxonMobil fund his research. Legates, the state climatologist for Delaware, was admonished by the state's governor for his controversial views and was told that he could no longer use his state title when speaking or publishing about global warming.

"The governor is aligning herself and the state of Alaska with the most discredited, fringe, extreme viewpoints by denying this," Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity told the Associated Press.

In aligning with the fringe, Palin is siding against her own constituents. In a phone survey of 1,016 Alaskans, conducted by Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, 81 percent of respondents said they were convinced global warming was happening, and 55 percent believed it was primarily from human activities. Sixty-five percent believe global warming will lead to the extinction of polar bears in 50 years. Only Republicans said that global warming is caused primarily by natural cycles and is not a serious threat.

"People in Alaska understand that polar bears are sea-ice dependent and that Arctic ice caps have melted away dramatically, so they must understand that polar bears are at tremendous risk due to global warming," Deborah Williams, president of Alaska Conservation Solutions, told The American Prospect. "I've not seen many doubts on that other than a small minority view."

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