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Tomgram: Subhankar Banerjee, The Destruction of a Vast Transnational Nursery?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Back in May 2013, a word came to mind that I wanted to see in all our vocabularies. It wasn't the ever-present "terrorist" but "terrarist" and I meant it to describe people intent on destroying the planetary environment that had welcomed and nurtured so many species, including our own, for so long; in other words, human beings willing to commit "terracide." I had in mind the CEOs of the biggest energy companies, the ones whose scientists understood global warming perfectly well decades ago and who still were ready to put their corporate money into supporting climate denialism. At the time I wrote:

"If the oil execs aren't terrarists, then who is? And if that doesn't make the big energy companies criminal enterprises, then how would you define that term? To destroy our planet with malice aforethought, with only the most immediate profits on the brain, with only your own comfort and wellbeing (and those of your shareholders) in mind: Isn't that the ultimate crime? Isn't that terracide?"

Of course, that was in the good old days before Donald Trump and his cronies filled a whole administration to the tipping point with so-called climate skeptics and outright climate-change denialists. And this continues to happen, even as one report or study after another confirms that humanity and its fossil fuels are heating the planet at a remarkable rate and filling its atmosphere with carbon dioxide at a record pace. In the end, Trump and his crew may prove to be the biggest collection of criminals -- in terms of harm to this world -- ever. And it should be considered a historical irony (of sorts) that, on this issue, the Republicans, once the American party of the environment, are with them all the way.

If you want an example of what this means in practice, take Donald Trump's secretary of the interior, former Montana Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke. In June, he addressed the American Petroleum Institute's board of directors at Washington's Trump International Hotel (on the very day his department announced plans to get rid of an Obama era regulation on payments for drilling and mining on federal land) and he also chartered a plane owned by oil and gas execs at a cost of $12,000 to American taxpayers for a domestic trip that would have cost $300 commercially; meanwhile, he's been doing everything in his power to open up America's protected areas to energy exploitation, shrink the boundaries of such areas, slash the Park Service budget meant to protect them, and even make them more expensive for ordinary Americans to visit. And if you think that's a mouthful of a run-on sentence, it only begins to hint at where this administration is heading with its energy fantasies about how this planet should operate. As TomDispatchregular Subhankar Banerjee, an expert on Alaska's Arctic lands and seas, points out today, no previously protected spot is likely to be spared such attention. In this context, think of the Trump White House as the Exxon Valdez of administrations and a group of terrarists all rolled into one. Tom

Drilling, Drilling, Everywhere...
Will the Trump Administration Take Down the Arctic Refuge?
By Subhankar Banerjee

What happens in the Arctic doesn't just stay up north. It affects the world, as that region is the integrator of our planet's climate systems, atmospheric and oceanic. At the moment, the northernmost places on Earth are warming at more than twice the global average, a phenomenon whose impact is already being felt planetwide. Welcome to the world of climate breakdown -- and to the world of Donald Trump.

The set of climate feedbacks contributing to further warming in the Arctic are about to be aided and abetted by President Trump, his Interior Department, and a Republican-controlled Congress. The impact of their decisions will be experienced around the world. While the United States is still recovering from the deaths, suffering, and devastation caused by extreme hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as historically deadly wildfires across the West, Trump's Department of the Interior is preparing a five-year strategic plan that never once mentions climate change or climate science. It does, however, plan to open previously protected public lands of all sorts to the increased exploitation of fossil fuels -- and Arctic Alaska is anything but exempt.

"Alaska [is] open for business," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a cheering crowd at an Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in Anchorage earlier this year. The secretary was visiting as part of a presidential mandate to "prepare our country to be energy dominant" -- even though the U.S. has been the largest global producer of oil and gas since 2012 and, in this era, has often been referred to as "Saudi America." What that energy-dominance slogan signals is nothing short of the beginning of a war against environmental conservation, justice, and the planet as a welcoming habitat for all life.

"The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska," Zinke assured the Anchorage audience. What he evidently wants to do is sell off the most ecologically and culturally significant places in the state to Big Oil. On the sacrifice block is a long endangered stretch of public land, Area 1002, or the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a biological nursery of global significance and a place sacred to the indigenous Gwich'in Nation. Like her father, also a Republican senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski is championing the task of opening the refuge to drilling by abusing the filibuster-proof budget process rather than debating this controversial issue as stand-alone legislation in Congress.

I first visited the Arctic Refuge in March 2001, spending a never-to-be-forgotten 14 months there during which, among so many other remarkable sights, I watched a polar bear mother playing with her two cubs outside their den in the Canning River Delta. As sea ice in the region continues to rapidly disappear, thanks to accelerating global warming, and as species like the polar bear that once used that sea ice as a primary denning habitat struggle for survival, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge becomes increasingly significant as a land-denning habitat. And keep in mind that it's a place that harbors the highest density of onshore polar bear dens in Alaska. Any seismic exploration and drilling activities in the refuge are expected to severely affect those bears. (Seismic exploration is the process by which subsurface deposits of fossil fuels and minerals are detected by using shock waves.)

On that first visit to the refuge, I witnessed caribou from the Porcupine River herd giving birth around our tent. Nearly 200,000 of them migrate more than 1,500 miles annually from their wintering habitats to the south to their calving grounds on the coastal plain and back again, the longest land migration of any mammal on Earth. In the summer months, I had difficulty sleeping because the sun quite literally never sets and birds sing around the clock. More than 90 species of them migrate from five continents and all 50 states to nest and rear their young on that coastal plain. No wonder the Gwich'in people call it "the sacred place where life begins."

A Vast Transnational Nursery

"Saddle up, it's going to be a tough fight, but we come from survivors, we come from warriors," Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee wrote in a Facebook post, as she faced the increasingly grim Trumpian future that seems to be in store for the preserve. To understand the situation she and her people find themselves in, join me on a brief journey into what might be called multispecies justice.

On December 6, 1960, after a decade-long campaign by conservationists George Collins, Lowell Sumner, and Olaus and Mardy Murie, among others, Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton signed Public Land Order 2214 setting aside 8.9 million acres in northeast Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Its purpose: "preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values." Twenty years later, the "range" was renamed a "refuge" and more than doubled in size as part of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, or ANILCA, signed into law on December 2, 1980, by President Jimmy Carter. Protecting the habitat of the Porcupine River caribou herd was a crucial focus of the conservationists who helped create the refuge.

Just as the original refuge was being established, the Gwich'in were beginning their own advocacy for the protection of the caribou. "Our people have been raising concerns about the impact of development on the caribou since the sixties," Gwich'in elder and activist Sarah James of Arctic Village told me during my visit to Alaska last month.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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