Global warming is real. And our unrelenting burning of fossil fuels is the driving force behind it. Some time in the next few decades these facts will be obvious, even if they appear to be in dispute presently. In the past century there were similar controversies about the environmental dangers of asbestos, lead and tobacco even though no one seriously argues for their safety any longer. The analogy between climate change and these toxins may not seem obvious, but in Kivalina: A Climate Change Story journalist Christine Shearer makes a convincing argument that there is a clear continuum of corporate deception behind all them.
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The inspiration for Shearer’s investigation is the tiny village of Kivalina, located on a thin gravel island in northwestern Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. Populated by a few hundred people of primarily Inupiat descent, the town scrapes by, relying on subsistence hunting and whaling. In the long winters, a few miles of sea ice used to serve as protection from the raging winter storms that frequent the region. However, as sea temperatures have become warmer over the past few decades that sea ice has slowly vanished and the island has been gradually eroding away every time a storm passes through. Soon, the place will be uninhabitable.
Much of Shearer’s 150+ page story is historical. She describes the origins of Alaska and its vast extractable wealth. She explains the many layers of control, including the federal, state and tribal governments, none of which seem to be too concerned about Kivalina’s fate. She briefly tells how the island’s residents, formerly nomadic, came to settle on the ocean shore at the insistence of the governmental authorities.
Leaving the Arctic for a bit, Shearer goes on to explore the birth of the PDI – the product defense industry – basically an offshoot of the marketing industry. When Tylenol products contain poison or when Chevy Volts catch fire, corporations call upon experts to try and minimize damage to the brand. Sometimes these product defense plans can span decades and be amazingly complicated. As the author details in the book, the campaigns to protect asbestos, lead and tobacco relied on the sowing of doubt. Spend many millions hiring a few “scientists” and publishing a few fraudulent studies and it’s not too hard to create the illusion that the scientific jury is still out on the dangers of these toxins. The PDI’s efforts delayed legislation to ban and control these products for decades.
While these contrived controversies may be a thing of the past, the product defense of fossil fuels is currently ongoing and Shearer goes into extensive detail describing how the oil and coal industries have created doubt through use of advertising, hired “experts”, fraudulent science and a compliant corporate media, dedicated to presenting “both sides of the story”.
Returning to Kivalina, Shearer describes the residents’ survival efforts. There are two options. Move the town or implement massive erosion controls to save the island, either of which is estimated to cost tens millions of dollars, which is money the town doesn’t have. Who should pay? The feds, who have come to aid of other Americans, be they flood or hurricane victims? The state or tribal governments, who have profited handsomely from Alaska’s oil fields? Or the oil and coal industries themselves, who most directly profit from the underlying cause of Kivalina’s distress?
The town opted for latter, suing Exxon and others for damages to their village, but the courts didn’t look favorably on this and threw the case out. Not surprising, given that the whole concept of anthropogenic climate change is still “controversial” due to an army of talented and well paid PDI practitioners. The story ends by describing the town’s continued efforts to gain government support.
While the Kivalina saga is as compelling as it is depressing, I had a hard time finishing this slender book. Shearer’s journalistic skills are impressive – demonstrating a concise marshalling of the facts and loads of documentation – but her storytelling skills are sorely lacking. The town is fighting for its very existence, but the author displays only muted passion and chooses to only minimally mention the actual people involved, making it hard for me to really be touched by their plight. If the villagers are counting on this book to motivate their fellow Americans to come to their aid, I think they’re going to be disappointed.
Kivalina tells an important story about how corporate America intentionally places profits over people and is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about anthropogenic climate change. However, this reader found it overly dry and oddly uninspiring. These victims of corporate greed and deception need a more passionate chronicler.
A 5 star review of a very different book about climate change: The View from Lazy Point
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