Opinion: Willow Project exposes lack of climate priorities


The Climate Club plants multiple trees for a green initiative at RM. (Photo permission granted by Lucy Boyce and Fisher Mallon)

Charlyn Chu, Assistant Social Justice Editor

When Biden’s decision to approve the ConocoPhillips Willow Project hit every headline, the long standing debate of environmental protection versus economic development came to the forefront once again. Despite pleas and petitions to suspend the approval, federal judge Sharon Gleason has declined to stop progress towards combatting climate change.

The Willow issue is much more complex than a simple question of “environment or economy,” with legal considerations, political decisions and “leakage” arguments coming into play. However, the disastrous effects Alaskan oil drilling may have is undeniable, possibly releasing 277 million tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

“In the future, the most important thing is to not lease companies the right to drill on public lands, and to continue in the path of what the Biden administration is doing now: providing economic incentives to transition to more renewable energy sources for producers and consumers,” RM Climate Club president and senior Fisher Mallon said. The club has planted over 800 trees in the past two years, among other projects like building a rain garden on RM grounds and installing low-flow aerators. 

Willow alone is not the reason for our impending doom; after all, we have been warned since 1988. But add up years of fossil fuel burning, and it becomes obvious that environmental protection has always been shadowed by the need for economic growth. This growth often comes from big oil and gas projects like Willow, generating billions in revenue and thousands of jobs for Americans, at the cost of an enhanced greenhouse effect.

The idea that economic growth can be good for environmental protection is one that has been pushed by economists for years, but perhaps it’s more of the other way around. A thriving economy cannot just be measured by its GDP in recent years of development; it must be measured also by the health of citizens and its ability to sustain itself long term. 

When a lack of environmental protection leads to climate change, there’s a domino effect: marine heat waves affect sea life which ripples on to fishing industries; warmer weather causes droughts that affect  agricultural production and decrease crop yields; floods in coastal areas result in mass destruction. The cost of rebuilding communities and livelihoods after environmental disasters outweighs any revenue lost from green policies that limit emission levels.

“Putting economic profit over the environment is going to come back to bite us when croplands become less productive, and suddenly prioritizing beef production over staple crops with less of a carbon footprint will actually lower worldwide food production and make people go hungry,” Mallon said. 

It’s easy to think short-term, to look at effects easily quantifiable by a decline in the yearly GDP or a rise in production costs when considering eco-friendly packaging. It’s rational to argue that countries’ today would never achieve the wealth they did had they not taken advantage of natural resources, that an initial deterioration in the environment is sometimes followed by improvement. It’s harder to see that we may not have this luxury of an initial time period to test how our economic growth will affect the environment. 

Sure, hundreds of years ago, there was an abundance of natural resources and uncultivated land. This is not the case anymore. We are at a time where protecting the environment must come first because we have prioritized the economy for too long, and the Earth’s health is now compromised because of it.

“Urgent action needs to happen; the UN Intergovernmental Panel on climate change and scientists are warning that time is running out before we pass the threshold of 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial averages, when climate change becomes so called irreversible,” Mallon said.

Change is needed on all scales, institutionally and internationally. Calling it global warming should emphasize that climate change must be a concern and priority for all countries. Otherwise, individual governments will only continue to approve projects like Willow to stay competitive in the global market and keep economic benefits “at home.”

Measures coupling environmental protection with economic growth through methods of sustainable development is often cited as a “win-win” situation for all parties, but without strict regulation and widespread government action, it is naive to think fossil fuel giants will actually shift to renewable energy. Policy must adjust to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and our consumption patterns must change greatly.

The question of environment versus economy is no doubt nuanced, and choosing one does not mean sacrificing the other. However, environmental protection must be prioritized over economic development, if we want not just a prosperous future, but a future at all. Climate change has already exacerbated extreme weather events that threaten to make parts of Africa and Asia uninhabitable. The idea of an Earth inadequate for human survival may not stay an idea for longer; just ask the polar bears.

We must collectively start thinking like chess masters: steps and steps ahead. If we don’t prioritize our environment over the economy now, before we realize it… checkmate.