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Burning Alaska

Steven T. Jones photo
Steven T. JonesSan Francisco/Anchorage
Burning Alaska
President Obama's bad decisions on Arctic oil drilling and a weak climate change policy are drawing me to Anchorage rather than Burning Man -- but I'll still be in a big, furry costume

Normally at this time of year, when I’m freshening up a big suit of fake fur and working with a group to stage an artsy event in a strange and distant land, I’m getting ready for Burning Man. But this year, as my friends leave for the playa, I’ll be flying to Alaska to protest President Obama, his weak climate change policies, and his recent approval of Shell’s dangerous Arctic drilling project

And I’ll be doing so as Frostpaw, the famous polar bear (costume) from the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work on ocean issues. Our Alaska Climate Action Network coalition of local and national environmental groups is even building a replica of Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig called the Polar Profiteer during a sign-making art party on the eve of our big Aug. 31 rally, which will include singing, dancing, silly costumes, and creative forms of Radical Self-Expression

So it does feel a little like working with my Burning Man camp to prepare for a grand adventure, albeit with a more high-minded intention, rather than just rolling around in dusty hedonism (Not that there’s anything wrong with that). I don’t feel a need to publicly call out Burning Man like I did last year, there have been plenty of other sharp-tongued takedowns of that thing in the desert already this season, so I’m content to just fly off into the summer sunset on a new mission. 

I wasn’t even planning to attend my 11th Burning Man this year anyway, a decision that I was comfortable enough with that I didn’t need to make any big plans to deal with my FOMO. But I’ve been doing a lot of work on offshore oil drilling and climate change issues this year, including taking part in a “kayaktivist” protest against Arctic oil drilling in July, sharing a boat with Frostpaw (with another Center employee inside) on the San Francisco Bay. I honestly thought Obama might reject the project, just based on his often eloquent rhetoric on combating climate change.

It seemed like such an obvious no-brainer that if you’re trying to reduce this country’s carbon emissions and prevent the most cataclysmic climate change scenarios – which scientists say requires leaving at least a third of current oil reserves in the ground – then you wouldn’t open up federal waters in the Arctic to offshore drilling for the first time. That’s particularly true when the Interior Department says there’s a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill on Shell’s project, one that would be impossible to clean up given the harsh conditions there. That would seem pretty compelling if you were the president that endured the long, devastating Deepwater Horizon spill. Plus, you’d be setting a bad example for other countries to start drilling into the estimated 90 billion barrels of crude oil up there – a massive carbon bomb that would doom future generations to uncontrollable global warming.

And then, Obama approved the project. I couldn’t believe it! Conservationists and climate change activists around the world howled in protest and frustration. And then Obama unveiled his climate change proposal for the international climate talks in Paris this December, a proposal that doesn’t come anywhere close to the targets that this super-polluting country actually needs to hit to honestly address its share of the problem. And then Obama announced that he’ll be promoting those policies in appearances around Alaska, where he’s going to address a State Department conference of countries with interests in the Arctic, which he’ll apparently try to persuade to do as he says and not as he does. 

It was outrageous in its hypocrisy and audacity, something that we and our allies have pounded away it in the press and on social media. So as plans for a big protest in Anchorage began to form up, I knew that I needed to be there to lend my voice and help to amplify the message of our movement. To help sell the Center on sending me and to maximize the media moment, I volunteered to go up as Frostpaw, and they agreed.

Now, Frostpaw is a bit of a celebrity, with his own social media following and a history of dogging President Obama around the world, from official events in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. to his vacations in Hawaii and Martha’s Vineyard, urging the president to get more aggressive on combating global warming and leave more fossil fuels safely in the ground. 

Frostpaw is a powerful symbol given that melting polar ice – the very thing that is now allowing oil companies to drill in the Arctic, ironically enough -- has put polar bears on a path to extinction by the end of this century. A few years ago, the Center successfully petitioned to get Endangered Species Act protections for the polar bear, but the federal government rejected our effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as part of that protection, something that we’re still pushing for.

Frostpaw has been busy this summer, just returning to our Oakland office from Martha’s Vineyard and from touring with Neil Young, who has been supporting our climate change positions and our work with Apache Stronghold to prevent their sacred lands at Oak Flat from being sold to a mining company by Congressional Republicans. The costume smelled like a polar bear who had just gotten off a long rock-n-roll tour — and probably many tours before that — without ever take a bath. It fit, but man, did it reek! So as I worked from home a couple days ago, I gave Frostpaw a long-overdue bath in my tub with some Woolite, giving my soon-to-be alter-ego a good scrubbing.

I hung it out to dry on the fire escape just outside my apartment window, this massive suit of white fur drying in the sun and breeze, its long clawed paws sometimes waving in the wind. A neighbor in the building behind caught a glimpse of Frostpaw and flashed me a knowing smile before heading back instead. He didn’t say, “Headed to Burning Man?” but I’m sure that’s what he thought that he knew.

San Francisco is the headquarters for Burning Man, which draws more of its participants from the Bay Area than anywhere else, something I chronicled in my book, The Tribes of Burning Man. My neighborhood has been a busy hive of playa preparations these days, and it’s an understandable assumption that I was getting Frostpaw ready to roam Black Rock City. 

Instead, Frostpaw and I are headed to Alaska, the state that is already suffering the worst impacts of climate change, a resource-rich place that has the potential to make this problem far worse for everyone if Obama and future presidents can’t be persuaded to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term sustainability.

Our Climate! Our Future! is the rally we’ll hold at noon on Aug. 31, and it will be followed and confronted by rival rallies that support more oil drilling and deny the realities of climate change, one by Americans for Prosperity and the other by a new greenwashing group called Alaska Conservation Trust, which supports more offshore oil drilling despite its deceptive name. 

So our environmental allies need all the help they can get, and the help their getting from me will come in the form of Frostpaw the polar bear, and a guy inside doing everything he can to amplify the messages of our movement and help rapidly move this country into the clean energy future that the world is waiting for.

You can follow along through the hashtags #ShellNo and #AlaskaClimateSOS, the Center’s EndangeredOcean Twitter feed, Frostpaw’s Facebook page, or in the reporting of the White House Press Corps that will be traveling with Obama. Or check back here next week for Part II of this story and I’ll let you know how it went. 

#Burning Man, #President Obama, #offshore oil drilling, #Arctic, #Alaska