Editor’s Note: Victoria Herrmann is the managing director of The Arctic Institute and an assistant research professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is many things. It’s the largest such refuge in the country, a part of our natural heritage since President Dwight D. Eisenhower federally protected the area in 1960.
It’s an awe-inspiring landscape of soaring mountains and lake-filled plains that freeze in the Arctic’s dark winter and burst with color in the flowering summer light. ANWR is a homeland to wolves and whales, polar bears and caribou that migrate through well-worn trails and birth to the rhythm of circumpolar seasons.
And, above all, it is one of the few landscapes still protected and sustainably used by Traditional and Indigenous Knowledge experts of the Gwich’in people, a tribe in the northern part of Alaska and Canada that have relied on the porcupine caribou for thousands of years for food, cultural and spiritual well-being.
What ANWR is not is our country’s energy future.
But on Monday, the outgoing Trump administration began the leasing process for oil and gas drilling sites in ANWR. In a call to companies, the Bureau of Land Management asked drillers to submit which tracts of land they want to lease in the 1.6-million-acre Coastal Plain along the Arctic Ocean. After 30 days of submissions, officials will schedule a sale date to lease companies the opportunity to destroy a thriving ecosystem and violate a sacred landscape for uncertain economic gain.
This is a huge and dangerous mistake. No lease agreements should be made in weeks before Trump leave office, and come January 20 Joe Biden should refuse to issue any leases made in this period.
Though long-prized by Republicans and oil companies for domestic development, drilling in ANWR today makes neither economic nor security sense. There is already too much oil on the market, causing crude prices to plunge and a grim outlook for future profit. And with a president-elect poised to use the pandemic’s recovery to jumpstart an economic transition away from oil to 100% renewable energy, any new development – including ANWR wells – will soon become a valueless stranded asset.
To drill for oil with little financial value at the expense of species, the food security of America’s northernmost citizens and a way of life is not only a direct assault on those who call the refuge home. It’s dangerous for the seven billion of us who call this planet home.
Any oil drilled from ANWR, and the use we have for it, is finite. By the end of my lifetime, its deep wells of black gold will likely have run dry. But the climate catastrophes that come from burning fossil fuels are infinite: Every barrel of oil we choose to extract from new fields like ANWR is another step toward a future defined by desolation.
We need only look to 2020 for evidence of the devastation climate change wreaks on American communities– from California’s gigafire to a record-breaking hurricane season. In the last 10 months, there have been 16 extreme weather events across the US. Each of these disasters has cost $1 billion in damages, inflicted cultural loss and put American lives at risk during an already dangerous pandemic.
If we continue our reliance on fossil fuels, then the fires and floods today are only the beginning.
By 2100, climate change could inflict $69 trillion in damages on the global economy, according to Moody’s Analytics. Extreme heat could reach the point where heat waves would lead to 85 deaths per 100,000 people every year, according to a study this summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research – more than are currently killed by all infectious diseases across the globe.
And sea level rise would inundate areas now home to 200 million people, putting them below the high tide line.
This future, however, is not inevitable – what climate catastrophes we bear in the decades to come are a direct consequence of what we choose to do today. As the climate crisis has raged on across the country, we have been in dire need of a president to lead courageously and enact bold policies that put the safety and health of our communities first.
Unfortunately, Americans still have a little over 60 days to wait until such a leader takes office. And on November 3, 2020, the American public chose a presidential candidate who ran and won on the most ambitious climate platform in US history.
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have committed to building a 100% clean energy economy. Their plan commits America to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and transitioning equitably away from the extraction, production and burning of fossil fuels – including the oil beneath ANWR.
For the first time in four years, the United States will have leadership that puts the health of people and our shared planet before profits.
With a Biden administration, there is tangible hope that our world can still avert the worst possible future of an uninhabitable earth, including the exploitation of protected land for oil. But with this week’s ANWR decision, we’re left to wonder and worry over how much damage a lame duck Trump can do, putting profits over the well-being of people and planet, even as he heads out the door.