A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an "academic based" conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming. Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears' survival.
Republican legislative leaders say a federal decision to declare the polar bears "threatened" by climate change would have troubling effects on Arctic oil development and the state's economic future.
Last week a federal judge ordered the Bush administration to release its already-tardy decision under the Endangered Species Act by May 15. By law, such a decision must be based strictly on science, not on possible economic consequences.
Legislative leaders said they are frustrated that researchers skeptical of the doomsday scenario get marginalized as crackpots or industry shills by the media and scientific agencies.
"We want to have the money to hire scientists to answer the Interior (Department) scientists," House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said last week.
The $2 million is also to be used for a national public relations campaign to promote the findings of the conference.
Critics say it's a waste of state money because all the hard scientific research points in the other direction.
"This truly is the conference to nowhere," said University of Alaska researcher Rick Steiner, who has pressed the Palin administration unsuccessfully for five months to release any scientific backup for its position opposing the federal polar bear listing.
The time for debate is over, especially when the opposition is using "junk science," said Melanie Duchin with Greenpeace in Alaska. "This is clearly the same sort of 'question, deny and delay' tactic used by Exxon Mobil and the Bush administration to confuse the public over the severity of global warming and stall any meaningful action to deal with the problem."
POLAR BEAR QUESTION 'TRICKY'
Nothing is scheduled yet. The $2 million expenditure must still get past the veto pen of Gov. Sarah Palin, who has until May 26 to approve items in the capital budget.
Such a conference would seem to be in line with the state's official comments, which argued that government scientists went too far using climate models to predict the polar bears' demise. But Harris and others say they are not confident Palin will go along with their plan.
Palin's office had no comment last week, saying review of the budget is continuing.
The $2 million was sought jointly by Harris and Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla. It would go to the Legislative Council, a panel of elected leaders who can administer programs between legislative sessions.
The federal government has been considering the evidence for listing the polar bear for several years, initiating a formal proceeding in December 2006. Studies generated by the federal government concluded the summer sea ice is disappearing and predicted polar bears in Alaska could be gone by 2050.
Even if an endangered-species decision is made in the coming weeks, such a conference will be useful because the issue isn't going away, Harris said.
The polar bear question is a tricky one for the state.
Both the Palin administration and the Legislature have made efforts lately to show they take climate change seriously. They are putting money into protecting threatened coastal villages and have issued reports outlining other threats to the state's infrastructure. Studies are being made of Alaska's energy consumption and carbon "footprint."
But when it comes to polar bears, skepticism about warming trends is the order of the day.
A "threatened" listing could have real consequences for Alaska, depending on the management plan drawn up to protect the bears. Foremost on legislators' minds was the potential for new obstacles to oil development.
Opponents of the listing say it could also affect gas-emitting developments around the country, since those emissions are credited with heating the atmosphere. The Bush administration recently referred to such a use of the Endangered Species Act as a "regulatory train wreck."
FLAT EARTH SOCIETY?
Environmental groups say they do indeed hope to use the law as a greenhouse-gas tool, especially given the lack of effort from the Bush administration to support new emission-control efforts.
The state-funded conference will focus on science, according to a budget justification introduced with the original request. "Research shall be non-biased to specific groups' opinion and shall present scientifically fact based outcomes," the statement said.
But the point is not to seek some non-biased measure of scientific truth. The point, said Harris, is to provide a forum for scientists whose views back Alaska's interests.
"You know as well as I do that scientists are like lawyers," Harris said.
Such a conference and public relations effort would push the state deeper into a national debate over the science of global warming -- one in which most scientific opinion is on the other side. Indeed, many climate scientists contend there is no longer serious disagreement on the main points. Environmentalists accuse opponents of trying to create the illusion of a debate to slow new regulatory action.
Alaska officials may feel boosted, however, by the decision last week of a Canadian scientific panel to recommend the polar bear remain a "special concern species" -- rather than elevate it to the more drastic designations of threatened or endangered. The committee chose not to consider climate change effects in its population projections, though it expressed "considerable concern" about the bears' future. U.S. law does not provide for the lesser "special concern" option.
Even so, a high-profile conference of climate skeptics held recently in New York by a privately funded free-market group called the Heartland Institute demonstrated the difficult task in front of the state.
The March conference received little press coverage. Outside of ideologically conservative news outlets, the scant coverage was also fairly acid, noting the small number of real scientists and their paid positions with industry-funded groups. Stories prominently quoted critics who likened participants to the Flat Earth Society.
The state's own polar bear science is already being assailed.
Steiner, the University of Alaska professor, has been trying since December to find out if the state's own marine mammal experts supported the state's endangered-species stance, which Palin said publicly was based on sound science. On Friday, Steiner released a long chain of e-mail correspondence, saying the state first promised to send internal documents and then refused. The state Department of Law is now reviewing the internal memos from scientists to see if they can be released under the state's open records laws.
"It is stunningly hypocritical that the state will spend $2 million to convene a scientific conference on this issue, but they will not release their own scientific analysis," Steiner said.
Deputy Fish and Game Commissioner Ken Taylor said Friday he erred when he first promised the documents to Steiner, not realizing they were subject to legal review.
One legislator who opposed the polar bear appropriation dismissed it as a "$2 million sound bite" ginned up by legislators for the campaign year. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, predicted the money would have no impact on the larger polar bear policy debate.
Gara raised the issue nevertheless on the House floor in April, saying it was ironic that the state would resist polar bear protections to hasten offshore oil leasing in federal waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. He said the state does not currently share in federal offshore-oil revenues like other coastal states, and said it made more sense to slow down the process until Congress can assure a royalty share for the state.
© 2008 The Anchorage Daily News