Alaska's war on science needs to end

To develop an environmentally sustainable economy, we need to ask the right questions

Posted: Sunday, December 27, 2009

Alaska's escalating war on science should be a grave concern to us all. On climate change, endangered species, predator control, environmental impacts of industrial development, and other important policy issues, Alaska now has arguably the most anti-science government anywhere in the nation.

For instance, with virtually no public input, the 2008 legislature appropriated $2 million for an "endangered species conference," for which "conclusions had already been agreed upon," according to an Anchorage Daily News report. The stated objective for the appropriation was to refute federal climate science, particularly the science behind the listing of polar bears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. In the words of its primary sponsor, Rep. John Harris, "You know as well as I do that scientists are like lawyers ... we want to have the money to hire scientists to answer Interior (department) scientists." Many asked former Gov. Sarah Palin to veto this appropriation, but being a non-believer in climate change and species protection herself, she approved it. Palin recently claimed that climate change concerns are based on "snake oil science," questioned "whether we are warming or cooling" and concluded that climate is simply "cyclical" and thus no reason to constrain fossil fuel use. No wonder we've made no progress on the climate crisis. If it takes place as envisioned, the state's "conference to nowhere" and public relations campaign will be a laughing stock of the scientific community.

In a Dec. 12 opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, Attorney General Dan Sullivan decried the "misuse' of the ESA "by Outside environmental groups," asserted that protecting endangered species could "lock up Alaska resources and shut down our economy," and said the administration will fight proposed ESA listings. Sullivan neglects to mention that Alaska already has 20 species on the federal threatened and endangered list and that hasn't shut down our economy. As justification for the state's ill-conceived lawsuit against the federal government over the polar bear listing, he states that polar bear populations are "robust and stable."

Not so, says the science. Of the 19 polar bear populations worldwide, only three are currently listed as stable, none in Alaska. Alaska's polar bear populations in the Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea are both now listed as declining, primarily due to loss of sea ice caused by carbon emissions. In fact, despite Palin's and Parnell's assertions to the contrary, we learned from documents the state tried to keep secret last year that the state's own marine mammal scientists agree with the science and rationale behind the threatened listing.

On predator control, hundreds of respected scientists and wildlife professionals, the American Society of Mammologists, and the National Research Council have all raised serious concerns about the lack of scientific basis for Alaska's arcane predator control program, but their overtures to state government have been ignored.

And on Cook Inlet beluga whales, Rep. Don Young criticizes federal agencies for producing "false science," and says that "the state should have the science available to (contradict) what comes forth." He and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan will ask the Legislature to appropriate "millions" to conduct studies designed to contradict the federal science.

During the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scores of researchers were hired by Exxon to deliver the results Exxon wanted, and to contradict legitimate government science. These researchers, who came to be known as "biostitutes," are the sort that Alaska politicians will be looking to enlist in their anti-science crusade.

With the recent revelation that the University of Alaska no longer protects the freedom of its faculty to honestly convey their scientific perspective to the public without fear of reprisal, particularly if their perspective is critical of industry or government, this war on science comes into sharp focus. Have we entered the Dark Ages of science and reason in Alaska?

Surely, Alaska deserves better. Science cannot continue to be abused in such a blatantly biased, dishonest fashion. If we are to develop an environmentally sustainable economy, we need to ask the right scientific questions, listen objectively to the answers, openly debate the results, and act accordingly.

Alaska needs to end its shameful war on science.

• Rick Steiner is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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