With Oil in a Melting World
In 2002, I went
to the Arctic to
experience climate change in the flesh, and I found it — and sheer
several miles offshore from Barrow, Alaska, on the sea ice with a crew of Inupiat Eskimo
Unstable ice conditions over the last decade have made whale hunting
increasingly dangerous. Every day, it seemed, the crews I traveled with
retreated amid melting ice and strangely hot sun to avoid floating off
Arctic Ocean or being crushed by colliding floes.
The day after I returned safely to shore, the ice did break free and
90 whalers floated away. Rescue helicopters threaded their way through
the floes, keeping their rotors spinning to avoid putting their full
down. All the whalers and most of their equipment were carried safely
over a long, treacherous night.
Whatever exaggerations may be contained in the current climate-change
movie "The Day After Tomorrow," climate change is real and dangerous
for the indigenous people of the Arctic. A world that's solid only below freezing can
be a scary
place when the weather warms. Eskimos are threatened by thinning sea
softening permafrost ground, larger waves, faster erosion and changes
Yet these same people advocate for more oil production — including
of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — despite powerful evidence that
use of fossil fuels is a major cause of the current Arctic changes.
The answer to why is largely economic. The Inupiat homeland is on top
largest oil field in North
America. Over the
decades since oil was found at Prudhoe Bay
they have parlayed that wealth into an excellent educational system,
water, sewer and communication infrastructure, rescue helicopters and
of Alaska's largest corporation, Arctic Slope Regional
has more than $1 billion in annual revenues and is based in Barrow.
The Inupiat oppose offshore oil development for fear it would affect
mammals, their traditional sustenance. But, on shore, the idea of ANWR
drilling is popular. The opposition of environmentalists perplexes many
Eskimos. It's hard to feel that Arctic wilderness is scarce when you
its vastness, and predictions of harm to wildlife have lost credibility
the Inupiat since such predictions didn't come true after previous oil
As for climate change, whalers told me they're not the ones burning the
The world isn't ready to live without oil; therefore, the reasoning
matters little where the oil comes from.
That's partly true, but it's also true that the Eskimos' allies on this
are making little effort to address the larger problem. The fastest way
address climate change would be to use fossil fuels more efficiently
shifting to energy sources that emit less carbon dioxide — not the
Congress' current agenda.
President Bush recently called again for ANWR drilling, saying it could
oil prices. Drilling proponents hope that dubious claim will persuade
as it takes up the issue in coming weeks. Cheap oil is still the
In a sense, the world's wealthiest consumers and their representatives
the same position as the Inupiat: facing disaster but unwilling to make
economic sacrifices to avert it. Except that, unlike the Inupiat,
really can do something about it.