Climate Denial Sneaks Into A Federal Report

12:20 minutes

a lone musk ox in a grassy hilly field
A muskox relaxing alongside the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Katrina Liebich/Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement last month that examines the effects that oil development will have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Buried deep in the appendix of the report was this BLM response to a public comment: 

The BLM does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis). The planet was much warmer within the past 1,000 years, prior to the Little Ice Age, based on extensive archaeological evidence (such as farming in Greenland and vineyards in England). This warmth did not make the planet unlivable; rather, it was a time when societies prospered.

The comment alludes to the so-called “Medieval Warm Period,” which is commonly referenced by climate change deniers to justify their beliefs. The BLM has since said the comment had no bearing on the scientific conclusions contained elsewhere in the report. 

Adam Aton, a climate reporter at E&E News, joins Ira to talk about the report, and what fossil fuel development in the Arctic might mean for local wildlife and the planet

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Segment Guests

Adam Aton

Adam Aton is a climate reporter for E&E News.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, it’s going to be a bread feast. We’re going to talk about the science of bread baking. And we want to help you with your home baking issues.

Do you have a question about your sourdough fermentation? You don’t know how different flours will affect your bread structure? What’s going on anyhow when you bake bread?

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The Arctic holds 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, according to the US Geological Survey. And up to 10 billion barrels of that might be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, meaning that patch of pristine Alaskan real estate is in the crosshairs of oil companies and the Trump administration, both of whom want to get that oil out of the ground. Last month, the Bureau of Land Management released an environmental impact statement on what fossil fuel development would mean for the wildlife refuge’s environment, cultural resources, and of course, its wildlife.

But tucked away deep in the appendix, over 600 pages in, was a classic pearl of climate denialism, an oft-repeated fallacious talking point that a warming planet is actually a good thing for civilization, and the assertion that, quote, “there is not a climate crisis.” How did that make it into a supposedly science-based analysis? And what would drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR as it’s called, what would it mean for Alaska and the planet?

2/3 of Americans surveyed by the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication opposed drilling in ANWR. But we’re polling you, our listeners. What do you think? Pro or con, and why?

Our number, 844-724-8255, we can talk about that, and then actually maybe about that little factoid tucked away in the appendix. Or you can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Let me open the discussion with Adam Aton, climate reporter at E&E News in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday.

ADAM ATON: Hey, there. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about this. Set the scene for us. What is the goal of this report?

ADAM ATON: Well, before the federal government does anything, the law requires them to take this hard look at any kind of consequences that could stem from their actions, and so that’s what the administration has done here. They’ve looked at what’s happening in the Arctic already with climate change and development around the edges, and they’re looking at what could happen if they approve expanded drilling in the Arctic. And what they found is what scientists have been saying for a long time, that the Arctic is warming at a much, much faster rate than other parts of the world, and that’s really bringing some massive changes to the wildlife up there and the land itself.

And so what the administration has done here is in earlier drafts, they’ve said, oh, warming can be beneficial. It could lead to more plant growth. It could lead to longer nesting season for some birds. And some of the government’s own scientists earlier in the process caught this and they said that that’s not true, that that’s nonsense.

And so later on in this process, the government corrected some of that. They said, oh, you’re right, actually, warming is going to potentially cause dozens of bird extinctions. It could really reduce or eliminate some of the habitat that’s along the coast, the northern coast up there. And what the administration has done here is they’ve said that those impacts are going to be so great that by comparison, allowing some oil drilling in the area really won’t make any sort of difference, that the wildlife up there is already facing such dire threats that adding some oil drilling isn’t really going to affect them that much.

IRA FLATOW: So you’ve talked to the BLM about this. Have you heard back from them about their comments here?

ADAM ATON: Well, specifically about the comments that in the past, human societies have flourished from warmer conditions, they said that those comments don’t really affect the meat of what they’ve done. They say they’ve put together a many hundred page document that uses the best available science, and that little comment response, they say, doesn’t reflect the science that they have put into here.

IRA FLATOW: How does a comment like that get in there in the first place?

ADAM ATON: Well, I think it reflects some of the political ideology that some of the top officials in the department have, there’s a kind of heritage of this administration, starting from the president, saying either climate change is a hoax, or presented with increasing evidence that it’s happening, it’s saying that actually, we shouldn’t worry about it, or it’s too late to worry about it, so we might as well just get ready for it. And scientists tell us that’s not really true. I mean, we are not a place yet where climate change is irreversible or doomed to runaway. There’s still lots of things that we can do to mitigate emissions.

But that’s not what’s happening here. We’re seeing this administration expand fossil fuel development in a really rapid way. And that’s kind of the opposite of what scientists say that we need to be doing.

IRA FLATOW: And I guess if drillers get the OK during this administration to do it, that would be a license that would last for years past this administration.

ADAM ATON: That’s right. And that’s really what we’ve seen at the department level. These sorts of analyses take years and years. They cost millions of dollars, and they involve a ton of people.

And we’ve seen this administration really, some would say, rush the process to try and get this done in the administration’s first term in case some other Democrat wins in 2020. And they’re trying to hold a lease sale later this year, and that would really lock in some of this development. Even if nobody puts a drill bit into the ground under the Trump administration, just having those energy rights will allow them to basically drill in the future if they choose to. So if a Democratic president comes in, there’s not really a clear legal way for them to take back those drilling rights.

IRA FLATOW: And what was the Obama administration’s stance on drilling in the Arctic?

ADAM ATON: Well, the Obama administration took steps to protect this wildlife refuge. He also took steps to restrict drilling in the ocean waters just north of here. ANWR is about as north as you can get in the United States, and north of that is the Arctic Ocean.

And the Obama administration withdrew drilling possibilities from that area, and the Trump administration has tried to undo that, and they haven’t succeeded. So some of Obama’s policies here have proven durable. But this is one that was put forward by Congress, and so anything that Obama did has kind of been overturned by that.

IRA FLATOW: Is there serious concerns about wildlife extinctions if drilling begins in the refuge?

ADAM ATON: Absolutely. Because what we’ve seen– it is true, the administration does have a point that there are massive changes occurring in this area. One of the most dramatic is the loss of sea ice. And as that sea ice disappears, the wildlife that depends on it, most famously, the polar bear, is going to be forced back onto the land more and more. And along the coastal areas is kind of where the administration says that this oil is, and so polar bears and other wildlife are essentially being driven into the areas that the administration wants to develop.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if we can go to the phones, get a call in before we have to go. Let’s go to Rosalee– no, Tara in Rosalee, Nebraska. Sorry about that, Tara.

TARA: It’s OK. Thank you for having me on your show. And I just want to make the comment that I’m absolutely horrified that this administration continues to sell off our planet for future generations in order to line their pockets and the pockets of big oil companies. They absolutely don’t care what happens to generations to come. They just care about making $1 today.

IRA FLATOW: OK, thanks. Thanks for your comment. Let me see if I get one more phone call in from Renee in Cleveland.

RENEE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call today, Ira. My question is, one of the biggest comments or arguments I get is, oh, well, scientists changed it from global warming to climate change, so scientists don’t even know what they’re talking about. They have no way of– it’s not actually real.

How do you counteract that? How do you start that conversation, saying science is a thing. It’s changing all the time. What are some other ways to approach that with people who are climate change deniers?

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Adam, do you have any suggestions?

ADAM ATON: Yeah, thanks for the question. I mean, the science on this has actually been remarkably consistent. We’ve known for something like 100 years that carbon emissions trap heat from the Sun, prevent that heat from leaving the atmosphere.

And really, what’s happened is we’ve only gotten better and better at forecasting what those changes really mean and how quickly they’ll come about. So the science on this is pretty airtight. There are reports from the UN, the IPCC, for those in the know, that have really compiled just hundreds and hundreds of studies, really just a mountain of science that say, warming is happening. Human emissions are a part of it.

But also, there’s things we can do to slow this process, and that’s really important. We can slow the emissions that we put into the air, and we can do things like planting trees and promoting ecosystems to take up this carbon and take it out of the atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: Can the House of Representatives do anything to stop this drilling?

ADAM ATON: Well, it’s funny, because on the same day that the administration put out this environmental review clearing this big hurdle to drilling, the House of Representatives voted to ban drilling in this area. That, of course, is not going to go anywhere in the Senate, because the Senate has– Lisa Murkowski controls a large– she has wide influence in the Senate. She’s the senator from Alaska.

And this is something that she has pursued for years, and her father before her pursued for years. So this is really critical to Alaskan officials and Republican officials. And so it’s hard to see anything short of a democratic takeover of the entire federal government stopping this.

IRA FLATOW: And just quickly, how would this proceed? What should we be keeping an eye out for?

ADAM ATON: Well, the administration wants to get these leases out, sold by the end of the year. So there’s a couple more steps that they have to take for that. and one of the processes that’s happening kind of parallel to this is we’re trying to figure out what’s actually underneath the ground here. Where is the oil and how much is there?

And studies to do that is either on the ground, seismic testing, or you can do some of that from the air. And so far, those tests haven’t been able to go forward. So there’s a possibility that these lease sales might happen without the public, or even some of these companies, really, having a good idea of what they’re buying.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Adam.

ADAM ATON: Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: Adam Aton, he’s a climate reporter at E&E News in Washington. We’re going to take a break and we’re going to break bread. Bake it first, I hope.

We’re talking about the science behind baking bread, and we want to hear your questions. 844-724-8255. Do you have a bread failure you’d want to talk about? We’ll discuss it with the experts. We’ll be right back after this break.

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