Sarah Palin’s Alaska has been called the “Paul Revere of global warming.” That’s because the sharp impacts the state has been feeling, including the just-announced near-record melting of Arctic sea ice this summer, are a warning of what the rest of us will soon be feeling.
But even as these impacts have become evident (and notwithstanding her equivocal, unconvincing comments about climate change in her recent interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson), Palin has remained in a state of denial. If she should ever ascend to the presidency, we would be right back where we started from with a leader who believes in her guts, like George W. Bush, that humans can do no wrong to the planet. And that fantasy could ultimately lead to a truly scary future.
The harm is already vividly apparent in Alaska. Winter temperatures there have soared by as much as 5 to 7 degrees F over the past 50 years, bringing a host of environmental changes. As I’m writing this on September 16, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has announced that sea ice in the Arctic Ocean off the Alaskan coast reached its second lowest extent on record, dropping to almost a million acres below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum.
As the increasingly ice-free coast is left vulnerable to storm surges, and permafrost continues its dramatic meltdown, Alaskan towns like Shishmaref are slipping into the Arctic Ocean. Away from the coasts, fire has been consuming ever more acreage throughout the boreal forests of North America, including Alaska, with the average area burned each year doubling since 1970. In 2004 alone, 6.6 million acres of Alaskan forest burned, an area the size of Massachusetts, making it the worst Alaskan fire season on record. And the fires didn’t stop. The very next year, another 4.6 million acres went up in smoke. Between 2004 and 2005, fully one quarter of all the forests in northeastern Alaska were consumed.
Trees in Sarah Palin’s state also are succumbing to another onslaught brought on in part by warming temperatures: voracious beetles. Four million acres of mature spruce in south-central Alaska have been killed by bark beetles — the world’s largest recorded outbreak. In the southeastern portion of the state, warming temperatures also are implicated in a massive die-off of 500,000 acres of yellow cedar — possibly the most economically valuable tree of the Tongass National Forest.
Meanwhile, more than 10,000 ponds in Alaska have either shrunk or disappeared completely since the 1950s, according to research by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. These changes, the researchers concluded, may trigger a cascade of harm to plants and animals, including reductions in waterfowl species.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of scientists attribute the warming that’s triggering these changes to our emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases. As the 2007 assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it, “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”
James White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, is more blunt: “The basic physics here are so sound and so simple that the notion we could increase CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide and not change the climate is so utterly bizarre that it is laughable. And it amazes me that people get away with it.”
With her state’s changing environment sounding the alarm about global warming, what has Sarah Palin had to say about it?
Not long ago, she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that, “I’m not an Al Gore doom- and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity.” She was a little more circumspect in an interview with Newsmax when John McCain picked her as his running mate, but her message was exactly the same: “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made,” she said.
“If I were a citizen of Alaska I would be really pissed off that the governor is saying this,” Jim White says. “It’s as if a group is roaming around Alaska shooting people. We know who is doing it, yet we claim we don’t know why people are showing up with bullets in their heads.”
Just two weeks after denying the reality of global warming, Palin backpedaled awkwardly in her interview with Charlie Gibson on ABC, in an apparent attempt to bring her views more into line with Senator McCain’s: “I believe that man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change.” Our activities can contribute to the issue of global warming? It seems that Palin cannot bring herself to say unambiguously that we are causing global warming, period.
She may be able to see Russia from Alaska, but she evidently remains blind to the role humans are playing in the burning of her state’s forests, the dwindling of its ponds, the melting of its permafrost, and the shrinking of its glaciers and sea ice.
According to White, the record of ancient climate changes shows us where we may be headed in the long term if we continue to avoid grappling with the challenge of global warming. White and other paleoclimatologists increasingly offer the example of the Pliocene Epoch, which ended 1.8 million years ago. Temperatures in the Arctic at that time were as much as 20 degrees warmer than they are today. Trees were growing all the way up to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. That may sound benign, but consider that sea level probably was 75 feet higher than it is today, according to White. “That’s basically good bye to Florida.”
Why was it so warm? The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere likely was as high or perhaps a little higher than it is today. But that alone can’t account for the extreme Arctic warmth. Scientists believe a phenomenon known as albedo may have played a major role. Ice and snow on the surface of the ocean and on land in the Arctic reflect much of the sun’s incoming energy back into space, helping to reinforce cold temperatures. As greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, and temperatures thereby warm, ice begins to melt, allowing sunlight to be absorbed by dark sea water and the land surface. This, in turn, enhances warming. In the Pliocene, this process is hypothesized to have gained more and more momentum, laying the Arctic Ocean bare, uncovering a significant amount of land in Greenland, and ultimately leading to the dramatically warmer temperatures of that epoch.
Could that happen again, but this time with us as the driving force? White thinks so. Roughly half of the Arctic Ocean now is free of ice in summertime, and scientists believe it could all be gone in just a few years. That could produce even more warming, and more melting, in a vicious cycle. Other impacts, such as warming of soils in the Arctic tundra, could enhance the warming even further. According to White, tundra soils contain more carbon than all the fossil fuels on Earth. Right now, this carbon is essentially frozen in place. But there are some worrying signs that as the Arctic warms, some of the carbon is beginning to flood into the atmosphere.
In the long run, if enough of Greenland were to melt “we could go from a few degrees warming to 20 degrees of warming, and from 1 meter of sea level rise to 25 meters,” White says. No one knows for sure how much melting in Greenland would be required. And the process could take well more than 100 years to play out. But this is where we could be headed if we follow Palin’s lead and fail to recognize how big an impact we human beings have on the planet.
The animosity that she and her fellow global warming skeptics have shown toward climate science may be rooted in a downright unbiblical fantasy: the idea that human beings could not possibly change the planet in a profound way. These critics seem to have missed the message in the Bible that many of them profess to cherish — the message that God gave us dominion over the Earth.
“This is one of the most important moments in human history ever,” White argues. “We’re going from being just an occupant of the planet to being the dominator of the planet. That switch is happening right now. And it’s one of the biggies. We’ve sought dominion over this planet, and now we’ve got it.”
Tom Yulsman is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Audubon magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications. He wrote his first article about global warming in 1984.
Categories: scholars and rogues