Rarely, we have the remote chance of seeing the Northern Lights if there is a geomagnetic storm when there are no clouds and we are in a part of the state that is free of light pollution, whereas in Alaska, you can stand in a gravel driveway north of Fairbanks at 3 in the morning and take in the dazzling performance of undulating emerald and amethyst ribbons overhead, as if you were just going outside to listen to the crickets. This might seem to be the beginning and end of any relationship between these two distant places, and the distance is notable.
Physical or social distance enables outsiders to reconcile the outsourcing of any of our problems. That’s true when talking about the trash that had been taken “away” from suburbs to Hartford for incineration and now “away” somewhere, anywhere else. It’s true when looking at what has allowed for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to be opened for resource extraction. If you regard a place as a wasteland and its people as worthless, entire worlds of possible exploitation open up before you.
ANWR was established in 1960, expanded in 1980, and eroded during the Trump administration, with the opening of its coastal plain – 1.5 million acres – to oil and gas extraction. The operation, expensive on all fronts, would allay the nation’s oil addiction for one year, at most. The coastal plain is the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd – 128,000 strong – which holds the record for longest migration route of any land mammal. It’s home to three bear species, a number of other mammals, and 200 bird species. This area is “so sacred we don’t step foot there,” says Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.
Developing the area poses the risk of rapid permafrost thawing, which would disrupt the food supply for caribou and other animals; this, in turn, would impact subsistence hunting. What has received less attention is the potential of permafrost carbon emissions. In a time when scientists are exploring avenues for carbon sequestration, Arctic permafrost – endangered by industry – is estimated to store four times what modern humans emit. When permafrost thaws, carbon is released. Suddenly, the problem is not merely one of faraway people, places, and animals.
Until recently, the battle over the Gwich’in people’s sacred land has been a legal fight. Now, activists are turning to capitalism. Connecticut has a role to play in this, much like how throughout history, we have had opportunities to choose how and in which type of horror show industries to participate. To operate a fossil fuel extraction scheme, above board, insurance is required. Our state’s leading industry could choose to not be complicit in environmental destruction.
The Insure Our Future campaign is currently targeting Travelers and The Hartford, which Kate R. Finn, Executive Director of First People’s Worldwide, says has the biggest footprint for drilling in the Arctic. With 14 international insurers making it their policy to not do business with oil companies in ANWR, there’s precedent. If they chose to not underwrite extraction operations, the two insurance giants headquartered in Hartford would not even need to be trailblazers.
Does this kind of tactic work? Helen Humphreys of Connecticut Citizens Action Group (CCAG) says that before adding pressure, The Hartford’s “sustainability efforts narrowly focused on operational emissions, which represent a very small slice of [its] climate impact, and the firm did not acknowledge, let alone seek to minimize, its role in enabling fossil fuel expansion through investing and insurance underwriting.”
Following demands from a coalition including CCAG, Humphreys says the company “has been compelled to address the carbon footprint of its entire business and start to curb its support for fossil fuels. In 2019, The Hartford adopted a policy restricting insurance coverage for the coal and tar sands oil industry, becoming the first US insurer to adopt a policy restricting tar sands oil underwriting. In April 2022, The Hartford announced a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.” They “have not yet announced more details on interim targets and pathways to achieve that goal,” Humphreys says. Additionally, the company has been quiet about its policy regarding ANWR.
Connecticut has an opportunity to part ways with its reputation as being stodgy and clinging to the past, and rebrand itself as a place of innovation, embracing a future that does not include fossil fuels. Dementieff urged people to write letters to insurance companies, newspaper editors, and to representatives, letting them know that “indigenous rights are human rights.”
Alina DeVoogd, a field organizer with Arctic Refuge Defense Campaign echoed this, suggesting that “one of the most powerful things we can do” as the general public is to email, use social media, or letters to the editor to get the attention of insurance companies. As Finn put it, “social license” is needed for a business to operate in a community, and that is just as true when speaking of oil companies as it is of insurance companies.