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Lipstick on Polar Bears

Where would politicians be without the Titanic? As metaphors go, it’s far more majestic than putting lipstick on pigs or pit bulls. Farmyard bacon and junkyard dogs may come and go but in the world of political rhetoric the Titanic sails on. The most famous shipwreck in modern history is the mother of all metaphors. Just last week, at a rally in Tampa, Florida, Hillary Clinton declared, “Anybody who believes that the Republicans, whoever they are, can fix the mess they created probably believes that the iceberg could have saved the Titanic.” A political cartoon shows the President at the helm, yelling, “I’m king of the world!” as the mighty vessel plows into bergs labeled “Deficits,” “Unemployment” and “Foreign Policy.” Democratic strategist Paul Begala writes, “Selling the old Bush line in this economy would be like trying to sell tickets for the return trip on the Titanic after it sank.”

And, of course, there are infinite variations on the notion of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or buying new ones, as metaphor for wasting time on a trivial task as disaster looms – an especially apt image when it comes to politics, Congress or virtually any government agency. Heckuva job, skipper.

When it’s functioning well, government is often referred to as a ship of state (See Longfellow: “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State! Sail on, O Union, strong and great!”), so when it veers perilously off course, comparing it to the well-known leviathan that slipped beneath the waves nearly one hundred years is a logical skip of the stone. Titanic is an iconic symbol of hubris, a manmade behemoth built in defiance and brought low by a random natural phenomenon. “God Himself could not sink this ship,” sneers the villain in the James Cameron movie and at that point, even if for some unlikely reason you weren’t aware of the outcome, you know for sure that this is not going to end well.

Humankind’s ability to help bring calamity down upon itself is what makes Titanic such a powerful image, especially as we face the growing immutability of what we’re doing to our planet. Despite being distracted by the current campaign’s side trips into sludge and triviality, with Karl Rove simultaneously telling Fox News the attacks have gone too far, but that the non-partisan, fact-check organizations that challenge falsehoods can’t be trusted(!), we would do well to consider that the icebergs are still out there, rhetorically, and, in the case of Sarah Palin, very much for real.

In her new position as princess regent of the Republican Party, the vice presidential candidate has had to do some fancy skating, finding herself – with a team of Republican coaches at her ear — positioning herself on many issues for the very first time and altering some of her existing views to more closely mirror those  of her running mate.  Climate change, for example. In her interview with ABC News’ Charles Gibson Palin said, “Man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming,” although last December she was quoted by the Alaska newspaper the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner saying, “I’m not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity.”

Her partial conversion along the road from St. Paul comes not a moment too soon, as a big chunk of the entire Arctic region appears to be melting, perhaps endangering the McCain/Palin campaign’s boast that Palin is governor of the largest state in the union. An Associated Press article noted late last month, that, “Federal wildlife monitors spotted nine polar bears in one day swimming in open ocean off Alaska’s northwest coast, and environmental groups say the event is a strong signal that diminished sea ice brought on by warming has put U.S. bears at risk of drowning or dying from effects of fatigue.”

Palin is not the polar bear’s friend – in May, when U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declared the charismatic megafauna a threatened species, the governor announced she would sue the Federal government and said state officials backed her belief that global warming was not affecting the bear population. Recently released e-mails from those same scientists actually said the opposite.

“She and other Alaska elected officials fear a listing will cripple oil and gas development in prime polar bear habitat off the state’s northern and northwestern coasts,” the Associated Press reported. “…Polar bears are well-managed and their population has dramatically increased over 30 years as a result of conservation, she said.”

Secretary Kempthorne disagreed and the figures back him up. A US Geological Survey study predicted Alaskan polar bears could be extinct by 2050, which is important because the bears are an indicator species – what happens to them is relevant to the entire food chain. And it tells us a lot about how quickly sea ice – which the bears use as platforms on which to live and hunt seals – is disappearing.

According to the AP, “Summer sea ice last year shrunk to a record low, about 1.65 million square miles in September, nearly 40% less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000 and most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral, possibly with an Arctic Ocean that’s ice free during summer months by 2030 or sooner.” In fact, the British newspaper The Independent reported August 31, “Open water now stretches all the way round the Arctic, making it possible for the first time in human history to circumnavigate the North Pole… the most important geographical landmark to date to signal the unexpectedly rapid progress of global warming.”

The resulting opening of Arctic sea lanes creates a morass of issues that will affect American foreign and energy policy for years, and which neither capaign is significantly addressing. As noted in this column a couple of years ago, “Melting of the Arctic icecap would create a sea five times the size of the  Mediterranean and shorten global shipping routes by thousands of miles.” The impact on maritime trade and commercial fishing thus will be enormous, not to mention the new availability of natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Eight nations are fighting over territorial rights to the Arctic seabed – including not only Russia, the United States and Canada but also Norway and Denmark.

But among the many disastrous side effects is that south Florida, the Marshall Islands and half of Bangladesh will be underwater. The UN estimates that by decade’s end around 50 million people will become environmental refugees. Because of global warming, we’ll find ourselves in a manmade, hubristic mess of, um, Titanic proportions.

So here’s the lipstick part: Maybe there won’t be as many icebergs.

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program  Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.   Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.

 

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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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