Charles Wohlforth
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Los Angeles Times
Op-Ed 6/14/04


A Romance With Oil in a Melting World

By Charles Wohlforth

In 2002, I went to the Arctic to experience climate change in the flesh, and I found it — and sheer terror — several miles offshore from Barrow, Alaska, on the sea ice with a crew of Inupiat Eskimo whale hunters.

Unstable ice conditions over the last decade have made whale hunting increasingly dangerous. Every day, it seemed, the crews I traveled with hastily retreated amid melting ice and strangely hot sun to avoid floating off into the Arctic Ocean or being crushed by colliding floes.

The day after I returned safely to shore, the ice did break free and more than 90 whalers floated away. Rescue helicopters threaded their way through fog to the floes, keeping their rotors spinning to avoid putting their full weight down. All the whalers and most of their equipment were carried safely to shore over a long, treacherous night.

Whatever exaggerations may be contained in the current climate-change disaster 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 ice, softening permafrost ground, larger waves, faster erosion and changes in the seasons.

Yet these same people advocate for more oil production — including development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — despite powerful evidence that human 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 of the 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, modern water, sewer and communication infrastructure, rescue helicopters and ownership of Alaska's largest corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which has more than $1 billion in annual revenues and is based in Barrow.

The Inupiat oppose offshore oil development for fear it would affect marine mammals, their traditional sustenance. But, on shore, the idea of ANWR oil drilling is popular. The opposition of environmentalists perplexes many Eskimos. It's hard to feel that Arctic wilderness is scarce when you are within its vastness, and predictions of harm to wildlife have lost credibility among the Inupiat since such predictions didn't come true after previous oil fields were developed.

As for climate change, whalers told me they're not the ones burning the oil. The world isn't ready to live without oil; therefore, the reasoning goes, it matters little where the oil comes from.

That's partly true, but it's also true that the Eskimos' allies on this issue are making little effort to address the larger problem. The fastest way to address climate change would be to use fossil fuels more efficiently while shifting to energy sources that emit less carbon dioxide — not the strategy on Congress' current agenda.

President Bush recently called again for ANWR drilling, saying it could reduce oil prices. Drilling proponents hope that dubious claim will persuade Congress as it takes up the issue in coming weeks. Cheap oil is still the priority.

In a sense, the world's wealthiest consumers and their representatives are in the same position as the Inupiat: facing disaster but unwilling to make economic sacrifices to avert it. Except that, unlike the Inupiat, Congress really can do something about it.