The debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was rekindled recently when President Trump released his budget proposal that included a boost in federal revenue from the sale of oil and gas drilling leases in the Refuge. In Congress, there is a push to include a provision to open the Refuge to drilling in the 2018 budget process. This debate has been tiresome in its longevity, alarming in its ability to reduce the land and God’s people to commodities, and unfortunately the debate has brought us closer to drilling in the Arctic Refuge that we’ve been for the past 40 years.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a largely untouched 19 million acre wildlife refuge in northeast Alaska that has been a battlefield in a long-running war between those that would protect God’s creation and supporters of oil and gas-driven economic development in Alaska. Hanging in the battle’s balance are the damaging effects of climate change, food security and the spiritual wellbeing of the indigenous Gwich’in people living in the Refuge for generations.
I am deeply saddened by the injustices that may befall the Gwich’in Native American community in Alaska. As a black church leader, I am also struck by the similar injustices continually faced by the African American community. We may live far from Alaska, but our plight is one and the same, and thus the call to protect the land of the Gwich’in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is a common cause.
Climate change impacts everyone, but both the African American community and Gwich’in communities are on the front lines of climate change and feel the impacts more intensely. It is well-documented that African Americans suffer disproportionately from climate change. We are more vulnerable to catastrophic loss in a natural disaster and twice as likely to die in heat waves. Most distressing is the fact that African-American children, who are disproportionately living near carbon-spewing power plants, are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts.
In the Arctic, climate impacts are especially acute as well. The Arctic is warming drastically – this past winter saw temperatures explode on multiple occasions to 50 degrees above normal. Sea ice is rapidly disappearing, permafrost is melting, and the coastal villages are facing the prospect of relocation due to rising seas and coastal erosion.
The Gwich’in rely heavily for food and clothing on the Porcupine Caribou, whose calving grounds are located on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Drilling in the refuge would almost certainly disturb the caribou and severely reduce the herd size, leading to starvation and an unholy exile for the Gwich’in.
Food insecurity is also an issue that the Black community understands well. An estimated 1 in 5 African-American households are impacted by hunger and the uncertainty of adequate food sources; double that of white, non-Hispanic households. Our communities know what it is like to face higher food prices, something that the Gwich’in will have to contend with should their main source of food perish.
As a person of faith, I look to the scriptures as my guide for living. They ask us to do justice, show love, kindness and mercy, and walk humbly with our God. It is because of this faith that I am morally opposed to injustices perpetrated upon all peoples. With the Gwich’in people it’s more personal. My affinity for the Gwich’in, who share a commonality with the Black community, is especially passionate. I am proud to stand with them in their hopes and dreams for a continued way of life on the Coastal Plain, and I strongly oppose the unjust and unnecessary drilling proposed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that will take away the life they have enjoyed for centuries.
The Rev. Tony Henderson lives in Denver.