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When open water kept Will Steger's dogsled from crossing the Arctic ice shelf, he switched to canoes.

When controversy over the science of global warming keeps him from reaching an audience, he switches to jobs and national security.

"I never thought 10 years ago I'd be talking about jobs to save the environment," the polar explorer told an audience of University of Montana students on Thursday. "But you've got to put yourself in others' shoes. For a lot of people, talking about taxes and big policies won't make it."

Steger earned international recognition as one of the most traveled adventurers in the North and South polar regions over the past quarter-century. Those trips gave him firsthand observations about how the Earth's surface has changed, including vanishing glaciers, shattered ice shelves, melting permafrost and displaced communities of people and animals.

Before he took to the poles, he was a high school teacher. He said the science of man-made impacts on global climate was part of his curriculum in the late 1960s. It seemed to reach a high point of public awareness in 2007, but has been drawing increasing criticism since then.

A December Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 40 percent of Americans distrust what scientists say about the environment, and a Yale/George Mason University poll in January found the share of Americans who are "somewhat" or "very worried" about global warming has dropped 13 points to 50 percent.

"These changes are coming regardless of polls," Steger said.

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But he sees something else coming: a big economic opportunity for the United States.

"Alternative energy is competing against cheap fossil fuels, and it's hard to get into that market," he said. But on the other hand, places such as China are investing huge sums to perfect wind and solar energy systems. At the same time, the United States is spending billions of dollars on foreign oil that supports governments such as Iran and Venezuela.

"I can't think of anything more patriotic than self-reliance," Steger said. While world climate treaties are essentially hamstrung by U.S. domestic politics, the world's technological economy is also waiting for "the traditional ingenuity of the American spirit."

"Most people in the world are in these boxes, and they don't think outside of the box," he said. "We're the ones who think out of the box."

The other side of the economic card is what could happen if global warming changes continue. At a similar presentation in Billings, Steger talked with fishing guides who were seeing small-mouth bass push into their Yellowstone River trout holes. Ski resorts, irrigated farms, boat makers and any other industry that depends on a constant level of water are already seeing climatic impacts on their bottom lines, he said.

Several older members of Thursday's audience wondered where the political will might come for such changes.

"Will we have to wait for the next generation to take power before anything happens?" asked UM environmental studies professor Robin Saha.

Steger replied that young people in general and residents of scenic wonderlands such as Montana are his best hope.

Growing up in Minnesota, he said half the residents of Minneapolis weren't sure which direction the sun came up every morning. Visiting Glacier National Park as a 10-year-old helped inspire Steger to climb and travel in cold places. But those advocates had better get busy.

"You have to have endurance," he advised. "Crossing Antarctica is nothing compared to working in Washington."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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