Seen from the air, Sarah Palin’s state is an environmental wonderland. From Anchorage to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, there is a vast landscape of snow-capped peaks, fjords, crystal glaciers, coastal lagoons, wide river deltas and tundra.
The guardian of this wilderness – and Governor of Alaska – has, this week, become one of the most recognizable faces in the world. But behind her beaming smile and wholesome family values is a woman aligned with the big oil and coal firms that are racing to exploit Alaska’s vast energy reserves. In the short term, that has bought her popularity at home.
It is a stance that guaranteed John McCain’s new running mate a rapturous reception at the Republican convention this week where the response to the coming energy crisis was a chant of “drill, baby, drill”. But the woman who could soon be a 72-year-old’s heartbeat away from the United States presidency has an environmental policy so toxic it would make the incumbent, George Bush, blush.
Mr McCain has stressed he is concerned about global warming and has come out against drilling in the Arctic reserve. But, in recent weeks, he has wobbled on the issue. And environmentalists are describing Mrs Palin, who denies climate change is man-made, as “either grossly misinformed or intentionally misleading”.
She wants to start drilling. She wants to block US moves to list the polar bear as an endangered species. And she has allowed big game hunters to shoot Alaska’s bears and wolves from low-flying planes. The 44-year-old governor says a federal government decision to protect the polar bear will cripple energy development offshore. As a result, she is suing the Bush administration, which ruled the polar bear is endangered and needs protection.
The US Geological Survey says climate change has shrunk Arctic summer sea ice to about 1.65 million sq miles, nearly 40 per cent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000. In such a situation it was unconscionable for Governor Palin to ignore overwhelming evidence of global warming’s threat to sea ice, says Kassie Siegel of the Centre for Biological Diversity.
“Even the Bush administration can’t deny the reality of global warming,” Ms Siegel said. “The governor is aligning herself and the state of Alaska with the most discredited, fringe, extreme viewpoints by denying this.”
Governor Palin would also like to bring open-cast coal mining to Alaska’s Brooks Range Mountains, an act of environmental vandalism in the eyes of many. The Palin administration has allowed Chevron to triple the amount of toxic waste it pours into the waters of Cook Inlet. This, even though the number of beluga whales in the bay has collapsed from 1,300 to 350 – the point of extinction – because of pollution and increased ship traffic.