Friday, May 6, 2005

Alaska's burning heart

In 2004, Fairbanks, Alaska, recorded its hottest and third driest summer on record. The combination was combustible: forest fires burned for over two months, incinerating a record 6.3 million acres of woodland.

The black earth left in the fires' wake, a singed territory roughly the size of New Hampshire, is one among many glaring examples of climate change given by Elizabeth Kolbert in her exhaustive three-part article on global warming, "The Climate of Man," featured in the New Yorker magazine this spring.

Fairbanks' fires are symbolic not only of a hotter north, but of Alaska as the focal point for all that rages in discussions of environmentalism (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), global warming (melting glaciers), and oil (Earth's most contested natural resource).

If all goes according to President Bush's plan to drill in ANWR, the unknown quantity of fossil fuel that lies under the tundra could begin to be barreled, shipped and burned sometime in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, world oil reserves are expected to peak sometime this decade. Any day now, the needle on the global gas tank will begin its slick slide towards empty.

The likely fruitlessness of drilling ANWR has been well documented: Even at high estimates, ANWR might reduce our dependence on foreign oil by a whopping 4 percent. Meanwhile, environmentally and economically conscientious methods, such as imposing higher fuel-efficiency standards on our vehicles, could reduce our consumption by far more than ANWR can deliver.

Raising standards by only five miles per gallon, for instance, would save roughly 60 percent more oil per day than ANWR is predicted to produce. A 10 mpg increase would save, well, you do the math.

Rather than forge ahead with the simple and technologically feasible idea of raising fuel-efficiency standards, Bush instead backs plans to drill in one of Alaska's most ecologically fragile zones, a swath of tundra whose proximity to Fairbanks' fires and the Arctic's melting permafrost is difficult to chalk up to mere coincidence.

As the Earth begins to run low on oil, it is also warming at alarming rates. In 1979, a government-appointed panel declared the warnings from the National Academy of the Sciences justified: Carbon-dioxide production through the burning of fossil fuels was warming the planet. In 2003, the American Geophysical Union raised the bar, stating that "Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures."

A year later, President Bush, who apparently never got the memo, said "We do not know how much effect natural fluctuations may have had on warming."

How could he ignore not only science, but the divine synchronicity of it all?

How incredible, that just as scientists come to the consensus that burning fossil fuels is threatening the planet's stable climate, that just as Alaska's forested heart bursts into flames, the Earth begins to run out of the very fuel causing the threat! It's as if the planet finally said "enough is enough" and imposed its own cosmic fuel-efficiency standards.

Could it be more serendipitous, more seemingly divinely orchestrated?

A religious man would call it a sign.

Our religious president is not convinced. So much for heeding the warnings of God.

Faced with facts and omens from on high, Bush, the one-time oil-man, is once again donning his broken-in set of ideological blinders, tugging down the brim of his oily cowboy hat, and riding north through the fires, drill in hand, to dredge the crude elixir. 

Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson both support drilling ANWR. Sen. Mike Crapo could not be reached for comment.

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