The Sacred Place Where Life Begins. That’s what the Gwich’in people call the coastal plain of Alaska where they live.
The Porcupine Caribou on which the Gwich’in have relied for tens of thousands of years for their subsistence way of life migrate hundreds of miles each spring to give birth to their calves there. So that Gwich’in name rings true.
It was that life that the Biden administration protected for years to come with the announcement last week that it was canceling oil and gas drilling leases in the 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and moving to prohibit drilling in another 13 million acres of protected lands bordering the refuge.
It wasn’t just the Gwich’in, who have been fighting drilling for nearly 50 years, and the caribou who won. The Inupiaq people who live at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, polar bears, musk oxen, Dall sheep, and birds you can find in all 50 states have roots in the Arctic Refuge.
That corner of Alaska is one of the world’s last untouched wild places, our country’s largest wildlife refuge, and the only one designed specifically for wilderness purposes. Its continued existence in its pristine, rugged state signals our commitment to nature and our appreciation of its wonder. It’s a sign of our national character.
But the value isn’t just symbolic. We’re on pace this year to produce more oil in the United States than ever before. Creating a glut will only extend our addiction to fossil fuels when we know that we need to move swiftly in the direction of burning less. And the trade-off is infrastructure needed to drill that will destroy the refuge forever.
It’s a trade that the American people repeatedly have said they don’t want to make. In polls in recent years, roughly two thirds of voters opposed drilling in the Arctic Refuge. After the president’s decision to allow another Alaskan drilling project to proceed months ago, this is the leadership most voters want.
The argument of proponents that Arctic drilling will boost U.S. energy independence and national security fall short when you know that all the oil under that part of Alaska is barely a year of the nation’s consumption by many estimates. We won’t drill our way out of the need for fossil fuels, but we certainly can drill our way to irreparable damage to the climate in just a few years.
Protecting indigenous people and their way of life in Alaska should demonstrate that we can stand firm to defend more communities on the front lines of climate change against the unabated greed of Big Oil. An unscathed, unmatched landscape shouldn’t be the test for doing right be our neighbors and by the planet.
Too often, we’ve allowed a few people lacking political power and desperate for economic opportunities to bear the immediate cost of bad environmental choices. The flaw is that more often than not, we all end up paying.
Whether it’s the cancer alleys created in the communities neighboring refineries along the Mississippi or coastal towns repeatedly crushed by extreme weather, they’re only the first to feel the burden. As the hottest temperatures ever recorded showed us this summer, no one can escape the toll that fossil fuel charges the planet.
Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.