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Sarah Palin's America

If the first episode was any indication, Sarah Palin's Alaska will be as cloying as might be expected, with family conflict rendered in its most anodyne form, giving Palin ample opportunity to burnish her image as a tough but nurturing Mama Grizzly. Even less credible—and more insidious—than the G-rated family drama, though, is the way this "reality" show portrays its heroine's relationship to nature.

When we watch Palin scale a glacier, it's hard not to admire her fortitude (though I admit to having unkind thoughts as she struggled past those deep, dark crevasses). But as she styles herself a rugged outdoorswoman with a healthy (if clichéd) respect for Mother Nature, it's as if we are being asked to forget everything she has done to destroy the environment that serves as the stunning backdrop for her adventures.

This gambit is not new. Back in 2008, on the Republican Convention stage, it was her frontierswoman shtick that, perversely, allowed her to chant "Drill, baby, drill" as if it were really her land and she could tell you what it needed.

Now, though, as she rolls out the I-am-nature routine again—and in light of her role in cultivating the appalling crew of climate deniers in the incoming GOP Congress— it's worth a quick review of her environmental record as Alaska's governor:

•  Palin was an early and enthusiastic proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and essentially anywhere else the oil industry wanted to go; as Michael Klare wrote here in 2008, "Her only real nitty gritty legislative experience is in measures aimed at expanding oil and gas production, to the virtual exclusion of other factors, including the environment."

•  She was an aggressive advocate of building a massive $40 billion gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope to Canada and eventually to the Lower 48.

•  In 2007, she green-lighted a toxic dumping plan by oil companies in Alaska's Cook Inlet.

•  She opposed a statewide ballot initiative to restrict new mining operations that would threaten salmon in the state's streams and rivers.

•  She opposed a clean water initiative that would have protected Bristol Bay, for which her daughter is named, from contamination by a huge mining operation.

•  She pushed back against California's efforts to combat air pollution.

•  As governor of a state with a rate of birth defects twice the national average, she did nothing to protect Alaskans from the toxic byproducts of mining and energy development.

•  She sued the Interior Department over its decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species. The reason they're threatened is that global warming is melting Arctic ice, which polar bears need in order to hunt seals, their main food source. Conservatives always hated the Endangered Species Act, viewing it as an encroachment on private property rights, and the move to protect polar bears under the Act was especially disturbing to them because it acknowledged global warming as a troublesome phenomenon. Palin's lawsuit provided the Bush administration the opportunity to declare that the Act could not be used as a "back door" to make climate change policy. (For more, see Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare.)

Palin has never been a big believer in climate change. Under the media glare of the 2008 election, she waffled from "I'm not one…who would attribute it to being man-made," to "Show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect or no effect on climate change." Now, though, she has no need to mangle the point, and dismisses global warming studies wholesale as "a bunch of snake oil science."

Palin deserves a large share of credit for popularizing this view, though she got lucky with last year's so-called "climategate," which was perfectly suited to her brand of paranoid, pseudo-populist, pro-free market anti-intellectualism. In her role as endorser in the 2010 midterms, she backed eight GOP candidates who will soon install themselves in the climate-denial caucus in the House. Fully 50 percent of incoming GOP freshmen are climate deniers (the preferred term is "deniers," not "skeptics," as they like to call themselves). But it's not just the Tea Party rank and file who are sounding these themes. Incoming House speaker John Boehner recently said "the idea that carbon dioxide…is harmful to our environment is almost comical." Not only is any prospect of legislation regulating carbon emissions completely gone, the Republicans now threaten to turn committees, like the House Oversight and Governmental Reform committee and the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, into vehicles for investigating climate scientists.

Of course, it's not as if all was rosy before the midterms. Thanks to the fossil fuel industry's iron grip on Washington, even supporters of the inadequate Waxman-Markey bill couldn't marshal the needed votes in the Senate. But with the window for averting catastrophic climate change fast closing—the consensus is that emissions must peak by 2015—these midterm elections were, in the blunt assessment of Greenpeace UK's Joss Garman, "a complete disaster." As Garman is quick to point out, there are still fights to be waged around EPA regulation of greenhouse gases and the like. But the big picture is bleak. We will read articles about the melting ice pack in Greenland —which, according to the New York Times, could cause a rise in sea levels of three to six feet, potentially inundating the entire East Coast and displacing millions worldwide —but from our leaders, we will hear about how evil scientists concocted the "hoax" of global warming.

Welcome to Sarah Palin's America.

Editor's Note: "Glaciers" has been changed to "Arctic ice." Thanks to commenters for pointing out the error.

 
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