These days the Arctic holds several distinctions. First, of course, it is the most rapidly warming place on Earth—warming at three times the rate of the rest of the planet. It is also home to some of the most spectacular ecosystems on Earth and incredible cultural diversity. But, unfortunately, the Arctic also stands out as a proving ground for the Trump administration’s most naked disregard for public service.
The Arctic is now the epicenter for the administration’s full-on assault on scientific integrity.
In a rush to hand over the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas interests, Trump’s Interior Department has undercut science and federal scientists at every turn. They have minimized and sidelined existing science, altered scientific findings, and twisted themselves in knots to demonstrate that oil and gas development in a world class wildlife refuge would cause no harm. At the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for the approval process, one employee described the rushed process as confusing and “off the rails.”
In a bizarre twist, the administration ultimately justified their decision to proceed with oil and gas lease sales by noting that climate change impacts are going to be so substantial in the Arctic’s coastal plain that the damage from oil and gas development, by comparison, would have a negligible effect. In other words, the region is done for (due to global fossil fuel extraction, no less), so they should be able to extract whatever riches they can. Try telling that to the Gwich’in people who live in the Arctic and consider the ecologically sensitive region to be sacred.
A desperate rush to drill
If the administration’s strategy had a note of rushed anxiety in the past year, the Biden victory has turned it into a full-on dumpster fire of desperation and greed. Last week they announced that the administration will be accepting nominations from industry partners for where they want to drill in the refuge. This is the first step in preparing a lease sale, which, given the various required public comment periods, would take place on or around January 19, the day before Trump vacates the White House.
They are desperate to lock the federal government into binding contracts for drilling in the refuge. This is the ultimate goal of all their science-busting, and runs counter to their stewardship responsibilities on behalf of all Americans.
A crippling loyalty test
But muzzling scientists and rushing development is not the only way they hope to hobble science in the region. They’re now going after a decidedly non-political entity, the Arctic Research Commission (ARC), an independent agency comprised of presidentially-appointed scientists, experts, and indigenous knowledge holders that develops the national Arctic research strategy and advises the executive and legislative branches on research in the region.
First Trump removed former Alaska Lieutenant Governor and University of Alaska Chancellor Fran Ulmer, a close friend and colleague with impeccable scientific credentials, as Chair of ARC. He then installed a new chair with no Arctic, professional, or research credentials whatsoever, just a bleak and short-lived stint at the State Department in which he was quickly marginalized by his own allies. In addition, the ham-fisted Trump team has said the quiet part out loud by requiring explicit political allegiance for an ARC appointment, and, judging by the utterly unqualified new chair of the commission, that loyalty is the only quality that matters.
The Trump administration is intent on crippling the science enterprise, and in the case of the Arctic, doing so with the maturity of a toddler who breaks his toy when a parent asks him to share.
The good news
The good news is that one qualified individual has been appointed to the ARC and some, though not all, of these measures are easily reversed—rushed and incomplete environmental reviews seldom stand up to legal scrutiny, and ARC appointees serve at the will of the president. What remains is a professional toll on the scientists whose faith in public service and public institutions has been shaken, a cultural toll on the Alaska Natives who have been so poorly served by colonization, and a profound ecological toll on a rapidly transforming part of the world.
The disregard for science and fact-based inquiry is jarring because they are so essential to a functioning democracy. The disregard for the people who work hard on behalf of all Americans is jarring because it has a note of sociopathy that is hard to stomach. The disregard, on behalf of industry patrons, of our nation’s world class ecosystems is jarring because they are throwing a wrench into the planet’s operating system. The disregard for the Arctic’s original human inhabitants is jarring because it is quite likely that their cultural diversity and indigenous knowledge hold the keys to resilience in a rapidly changing region.
Judging by the past few days, there will be more bad behavior in the weeks to come, and January 20 cannot come soon enough.