Peter Matthiessen, one of the first environmentalists to examine the potential effects of global warming, spoke out against the oil industry and the lobbying efforts of big oil corporations, such as Exxon and Shell, on Tuesday.
Matthiessen, who has been awarded three National Book Awards and has written more than 30 fiction and non-fiction works, spoke about the effects of oil drilling and climate change in and around Northern Alaska on both the environment and indigenous people.
President David Skorton introduced Matthiessen as a leading voice speaking out against environmental exploitation for more than half a century.
“Peter might be called the Pete Seeger of environmental writing,” Skorton said. “Or, as some of us believe, Pete Seeger might called the Peter Matthiessen of environmental singing,” he said, referring to the 92-year-old folk singer, who is also an environmental activist.
Matthiessen focused mostly on his exploration of the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In 1989, Matthiessen said, a bill was being moved through Congress that would have opened part of the National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.
“They almost had it ... It looked like it was done until November 1989,” Matthiessen said. “Until something happened ... the Exxon Valdez spill,” that emptied about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
Though continued efforts to drill were suspended in the wake of the ensuing public outrage –– including the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which banned ships with a history of oil-related accidents from operating around the Arctic Ocean –– Matthiessen said Shell is currently lobbying to return to Alaska in order to tap off-shore deposits.
According to Matthiesen, Shell has promised that it could contain 95 percent of any potential spill. However, it acknowledged it could take several months to respond due to poor weather conditions and freezing cold water on the Beaufort Sea above Alaska.
In contrast, only 58 percent of the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill was removed, and only three percent of the oil from the 2010 rupture of the well below the Deepwater Horizon rig was removed.
Aside from the effect oil drilling itself has on Alaska, Matthiessen said the secondary effects of global warming are causing environmental degradation that is harming wildlife and native people.
One example he highlighted was the reduction in ice thickness along the coast. Thinning ice, he said, has caused an increase in drowning deaths of polar bears.
Matthiessen came to Cornell as this year’s Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecturer.
The Iscol Lecture is one of the most prominent environmental events on campus. Past lectures have brought speakers such as award-winning journalist Bill McKibbin and NASA’s James Hansen to Cornell to speak about the environment.
Mark Lawrence, the web and communication manager for Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, said that the lecture series seeks out keynote speakers that will be accessible to the widest possible audience, regardless of their level of scientific literacy.
“Peter Matthiessen was one of the earliest writers to talk about climate change back in the late 1950s ... so that’s very exciting for us,” Lawrence said. “This will reach and interest students as well as other members in the community ... it’s not just the science end of it, but it’s the humanist end.”
Prof. Nelson Hairston, ecology and evolutionary biology, who served on the committee that selected Matthiessen to speak, said that Matthiessen’s writing made him a unique choice.
“He brings a humanist’s perspective to the lecture series that is a bit distinct from past speakers,” Hairston said. “If you look at the list of past speakers, you will see the wide diversity of people, professions and passions represented. It has been our goal to bring as interesting and lively a speaker to campus as possible.”