We speak with Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist and University of Alaska professor who has tried to uncover the scientific basis for Alaska governor and GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s opposition to any new federal protections for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. When he requested the assessment of state scientists who had examined the impact of global warming on polar bears, he was told he might have to pay close to half-a-million dollars for the request to be processed. Steiner finally obtained the documents through a federal records request and found that the state’s marine mammal scientists were actually at odds with Palin’s position. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As we turn north, as we head to Alaska, we turn to the environment. Scientists from the World Wildlife Fund have warned polar bears and other rare species could become extinct because of the rapid melting of the Artic sea ice. They say that less ice is predicted in the Arctic this year than in any other.
Now the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, has tried to sue the US government over the listing of polar bears as a threatened species. She has also denied that global warming is caused by human activity. But in an interview last week with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, the governor seemed to display a change of heart.
CHARLIE GIBSON: Do you still believe that global warming is not manmade?
GOV. SARAH PALIN: I believe that man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change. Regardless of that, John McCain and I agree that we’ve got to do something about it, and we have to make sure that we’re doing all we can to cut down on pollution.
CHARLIE GIBSON: But it’s a critical point, as to whether or not this is manmade. He says it is; you have said in the past it’s not.
GOV. SARAH PALIN: The debate on that even really has evolved into, OK, here’s where we are now. Scientists do show us that there are changes in climate. Things are getting warmer. Now what do we do about it?
CHARLIE GIBSON: Yes, but isn’t it critical as to whether or not it’s manmade, because what you do about it depends on whether it’s manmade?
GOV. SARAH PALIN: That’s why I’m attributing some of man’s activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now. So —-
CHARLIE GIBSON: But I -— you know, color me a cynic, but I hear a little bit of change in your policy there, when you say, yes, now you’re beginning to say it is manmade. It sounds to me like you’re adapting your position to Senator McCain’s.
GOV. SARAH PALIN: I think you are a cynic, because — show me where I have ever said that there’s absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect or no effect on climate change. I have not said that. I have said that my belief is there is a cyclical nature of our planet, warming trends, cooling trends.
CHARLIE GIBSON: That’s false. According to a Fairbanks, Alaska newspaper, less than a year ago, Palin did disagree, saying, quote, “I’m not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity.”
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of ABC’s interview with Governor Sarah Palin.
Well, Rick Steiner is with us now. He’s a marine conservation specialist, professor at the University of Alaska, has tried to uncover the scientific basis for Palin’s opposition to any new federal protections for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. When he requested the assessment of state scientists of Alaska who had examined the impact of global warming on polar bears, he was told he might have to pay close to half-a-million dollars for the request to be processed.
Professor Steiner finally obtained the documents through a federal records request and found the state’s marine mammal scientists were actually at odds with Palin’s position. They had agreed with federal researchers’ conclusions that polar bears are threatened with extinction because of a shrinking ice cap.
Professor Rick Steiner joins us now from Anchorage, Alaska. Welcome to Democracy Now!
RICK STEINER: Thanks very much, Amy. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Professor Steiner, talk about what happened. Talk about Governor Palin’s position, what she put forward, why she sued Alaska, why she sued the government, and where you came into the story.
RICK STEINER: I’d be delighted to. First of all, a little context: Alaska — big business here is producing hydrocarbons, and so Alaska is in the business of producing carbon that ultimately winds up into the global atmosphere. So there’s this inherent political tension between the big business in Alaska — oil and gas — and the notion that carbon emissions are causing climate change that’s ground zero impacts right here in Alaska. So there’s that.
Anybody who runs for office in Alaska has to embrace totally the oil and gas business in order to have a chance of getting elected. That’s sort of the politic here. When Governor Palin was running for the governor’s mansion, she supported more oil and gas development and never mentioned a thing about the threat of climate change here in Alaska.
What I wanted — as soon as she took office, she — is when Dirk Kempthorne, the Secretary of the Interior, announced that indeed polar bears were endangered. They were proposing to list them under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. Immediately after that, Governor Palin, then-Governor Palin — this is in December of ’06 or January of ’07 — called him and opposed the listing, before they had ever looked at the science.
Subsequent to that, the state’s marine mammal experts — and there’s only three or four of them on the state payroll — looked at the federal proposed rule to list polar bears, sent a nice long memo that basically concluded that, yes, the federal science behind the listing, you know, documenting that polar bears are indeed threatened, was solid science, and they agreed with it.
Later in the year, the USGS, which does most of the research on polar bears, United States Geological Survey, put out nine studies. This was in September of ’07. And again, the state’s marine mammal scientists were asked to comment, to review that science, comment on it. They did, and they found that the conclusions were solid. That was the scientific work that predicted that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears would be gone by mid-century, and all of the polar bears off of Alaska would be gone. And then they had a caveat about that, saying they thought that was a conservative estimate and that it would probably happen faster than that.
So, here you have the state’s marine mammal experts, three or four of them, very reputable scientists, agreeing with the federal proposed rule to list polar bears and with the USGS studies showing that polar bears are in serious trouble, yet the governor maintaining her political position that polar bears are not threatened by anything, and they’re opposing the listing.
So what you had, essentially, was a situation where the governor made a political decision, not a scientific-based one, to oppose the listing. Secondly, she misrepresented the basis of her decision to the public, saying it was based on science, when indeed it really wasn’t, and then, thirdly, tried to conceal all of that, when I was simply asking for that scientific review to be released. So there’s three red flags there for the public.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you tried to get the information. What is it exactly you were requesting from Alaska, from the state government?
RICK STEINER: Sure. The state, as many states do, has sort of an analogue to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Here, it’s called the Alaska Public Records Act. And under that act, citizens are entitled to information on what their government is up to, which is a fundamental tenet of democratic governance, certainly.
So, the governor had written an op-ed in the New York Times
a year or so ago, saying that she made her decision to oppose polar bear listing based on a comprehensive review of the science. And so, I simply wanted that.
You know, I found it very implausible that the scientists that I knew involved in marine mammal science in Alaska would have actually opposed the federal science behind the listing, because there is an overwhelming body of scientific thought and consensus that we’re in a very warming situation in Alaska, it’s caused by carbon emissions, Arctic sea ice is reducing catastrophically, and that is the habitat for polar bears, and therefore, polar bears are in serious trouble.
So, that’s what I wanted. I started the request in December of ’07. And it took about — the first response I got from the Commissioner of Fish and Game was, well, you know, it will cost you $468,000 for us to process this response. And so, I sequentially narrowed the request, and it got down to $8,000, $7,000. But still, I should have deserved a fee waiver as a faculty member with the state university in Alaska requesting this information on what our government is contending —-
AMY GOODMAN: You were asking for emails?
RICK STEINER: —- to get it to the public. I was asking for any documents, emails. I was specifically wanting the review by the state marine mammal experts of the federal proposed rule to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you finally get it under the federal Freedom of Information Act?
RICK STEINER: Well, that’s right. It took me six months to get to no from the State of Alaska, from the Palin administration. They ultimately got an attorney general’s opinion that they would not release this one document that I wanted, which was the state science review, claiming that it was a deliberative pre-decisional document and they had executive privilege to do so.
So then, they said I could take them to court if I wanted to. I found another way. I sent a FOIA request to the federal government, the Fish and Wildlife Service, that I suspected probably had it. They did. I got it. And you have it now.
And it’s very clear from that and another email that they accidentally released to me, the state, that the marine mammal scientists agreed completely with the conclusions and the methodologies and the thinking process behind all of the body of federal science that was used to argue for the threatened listing.
AMY GOODMAN: How unusual is this level of secrecy, your attempts to get at a basic scientific document or a recommendation from state scientists on whether polar bears are endangered? I mean, she used this supposed report that no one could see to actually sue the federal government to keep polar bears off the endangered species list.
RICK STEINER: Well, the lawsuit is kind of perplexing at this point, because what you have here is the experts for the plaintiff, which would — the State of Alaska, agreeing with the experts for the defendant, the US government, that, yeah, the science says that polar bears are in serious trouble and that something should be done to afford them additional protection. So, you know, I — many people here recommended that the state not pursue the lawsuit, simply because it didn’t make much sense.
And also, the lawsuit puts the state of Alaska, and particularly the Palin administration, to the political right of the Bush-Cheney administration, and that’s a rarified land where few venture. If you think about that, it gives an ominous pale to what a Palin-McCain administration would be, should they prevail in November. So, even the Bush administration could not find a way around the science on climate change, Arctic sea ice reduction and polar bear threat. Yet, the Palin administration took the far extreme right position on that and is suing.
I still think they will not prevail in the lawsuit. I hope they won’t. Here we have their own experts agreeing with the experts for the defendants, the federal government. And I think it was as much politics and posturing and things as it was legitimate legal maneuvering. I think they’re going to lose the lawsuit. The federal government is — as I said, if they could have found a way around the science, they certainly would have. But it is so overwhelming, and the consensus is strong, so…
AMY GOODMAN: Last quick question, Professor Rick Steiner, Governor Palin is being hailed as a person who took on an oil and gas, increased taxes against the Big Oil in Alaska, and yet you’re contending she’s in their pocket.
RICK STEINER: Yeah. You know, it’s this whole issue of “I’m tough on oil.” She has, with the legislature, raised taxes and royalties off the oil companies here. That’s something that people here have wanted and asked for for probably the last decade or so. This was not a new novel proposal. And so, they did accomplish that, and we’re very, very delighted that that happened, so there’s more monies into the public hands than into corporate hands. And that’s a good thing.
However, she’s very sympathetic with the oil and gas companies on virtually everything. And there’s nowhere in Alaska that she — that we know that she has said should be off-limits to additional oil and gas drilling: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the entire — virtually the entire offshore area in the Arctic Ocean, the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, which are the remaining polar bear habitat in Alaska, fish-rich Bristol Bay, where 27, 28 million sockeye salmon were caught this year. She supports oil and gas drilling out in that bay and in Cook Inlet, Alaska. So, you know, from —-
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the Republican delegates on the floor of the convention were all wearing the hardhats that said “Drill now.” And Governor Palin has said that -— what is drilling in 2,000-mile swath of 20 million — what is it — acres of — when she’s talking about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She said people outside Alaska just don’t understand, we need this for self-sufficiency.
RICK STEINER: Yeah, and that’s a ludicrous argument from an energy policy standpoint. We’re not going to drill our way out of this. The problem with energy, that we knew thirty years ago, is that we were wasting at least half of the oil and gas that we were producing and using in our phenomenally inefficient energy economy in this country.
What we need to do is a rapid transition to a sustainable energy economy. We know exactly how to do that, with energy efficiency subsidies, and remove the subsidies from oil and gas and nuclear and things like that, and then providing subsidies and tax breaks for alternatives. We know how to do this.
But, you know, the Palin-McCain side, I was — I had some faith in the McCain arguments prior to this, but with picking Palin, it’s very obvious their entire energy policy is going to be drill, drill, drill — they’ve been very obvious about that — rather than transitioning to the sustainable economy that we know we need.
And the other — one last thing is, on this notion of government transparency and honesty and ethics and things like that, I look at those as verbs, not as nouns. You have to be transparent and not just declare that you are transparent and honest. You have to be it every morning that you wake up and start governing. And that’s what we need to look for in our next occupants of the White House, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Rick Steiner, I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Anchorage, Alaska, where over the weekend, when Governor Palin returned to Alaska after receiving and giving her nomination speech in St. Paul, there was the largest protest in history, actually, of Alaska against her, even though the mainstream media basically just showed the reception when she came back to the Anchorage airport, the hangar where people were waiting for her. There were over 1,500 people who protested her return. This is Democracy Now! Our guest was Rick Steiner, professor of the University of Alaska, Anchorage, marine conservation specialist.