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Governor should renew Alaska's leading role in climate change response

Rick Steiner

The report released by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in late September confirms what residents of Alaska have known for years -- climate change is real, it is caused largely by humans, its effects are here now and things will only get worse.

The report cites the fact that the last three decades have been the warmest in recorded history, and that there is a 95-99 percent certainty that the current warming is caused by humans. The scientific debate about that issue is over. So Alaskans might be wondering what the Parnell administration has been doing about this threat, and the answer is simple: virtually nothing.

A bit of history on the state’s involvement in this issue may be helpful.

In 2006, the Alaska Legislature established the Alaska Climate Impact Assessment Commission, which terminated in 2008. And then in September 2007, Gov. Palin established the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet to develop and implement a comprehensive Alaska Climate Change Strategy.

In establishing the Climate Cabinet, Gov. Palin correctly stated:

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans. As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans. Alaska needs a strategy to identify and mitigate potential impacts of climate change and to guide its efforts in evaluating and addressing known or suspected causes of climate change.

The Climate Cabinet was comprised of the commissioners of the departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, Commerce, Transportation and Natural Resources. It appointed working groups on mitigation, adaptation, immediate action, and research, and got off to a great start.  

In March 2009, the Immediate Action Work Group called for immediate steps to “identify communities at risk, timeframe, and true needs to address climate change impacts,” and to prioritize “needs based on risks to lives, health, infrastructure, homes, businesses, subsistence harvests, significant cultural attributes, and the quality of life.”  

The Adaptation Advisory Group produced its Alaska Climate Change Strategy with twenty specific adaptation recommendations for infrastructure, fisheries, wildfires, freshwater, invasive species, wildlife, agriculture, other economic activities, health and culture.  

However, recent public records requests revealed that, after Palin resigned in summer 2009 and Sean Parnell -- a former ConocoPhillips executive -- replaced her as governor, the new governor quietly allowed the Climate Cabinet to lapse without informing the Alaska public. The Administrative Order establishing the Climate Cabinet is still on the books, but the Cabinet itself is now defunct.

In fact, we now know that virtually all effort by the state to address climate change came to a grinding halt when Parnell became governor. Today, the governor’s office cannot identify a single recommendation of the Alaska Climate Cabinet or Climate Strategy that has been implemented. Evidently, Gov. Parnell does not think the risk of climate change in Alaska serious enough to continue the Climate Cabinet, or perhaps he fears it may compromise his “drill-baby-drill” economic plan. Either way, this willful ignorance is spectacularly irresponsible.

As a result of the Parnell administration’s strategic disinterest in climate change, detailed planning for more than 100 at-risk Alaskan communities and ecosystems is in limbo. The state has abandoned a proactive posture on climate impacts ranging from fisheries, wildlife, village relocation, health and disease threats, wildfire vulnerability, erosion and flooding danger, sea ice loss, and impacts to infrastructure.

One of the most worrisome threats is that of ocean acidification (from excess carbon dioxide absorption), which threatens Alaska’s salmon and crab fisheries. And Alaska has failed to engage in the international effort to reduce global carbon emissions. Instead, this state administration remains opposed to any effort by Congress, the White House, or the international community to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions.

Convening the Climate Cabinet was the singular environmental achievement of Gov. Palin, and although Palin has now gone down the rabbit hole into the delusional world of Tea Party climate change denial -- and moved to Arizona, far from the coast -- the threat and impacts of climate change in Alaska are even greater than when the Cabinet was first convened. The costs of not taking urgent action would be enormous. We can’t simply ignore this threat, hoping it will go away -- it won’t.

Despite the fact that Alaska’s current economy is dependent on producing the very carbon that is accelerating global climate change, future generations of Alaskans deserve urgent action from our current political leadership to mitigate the risks of climate change caused by the global carbon-intensive economy. And villages need immediate help in responding to risks of coastal erosion, subsidence from permafrost thaw, sea level rise and storm inundation, and reduced abilities to access subsistence resources.

Climate change is the elephant in Alaska’s living room that for the last four years our political leadership has tried hard to ignore. The Parnell administration says it believes in science, but time and again it ignores any science that may cast an unfavorable light on its political agenda. This should not be a partisan or political issue, and we cannot simply sit back and wait for the federal government to do all the heavy lifting on this in Alaska. Every aspect of life in Alaska is at risk from climate change, yet the Parnell administration has ignored it altogether. That is irresponsible government, and the people of Alaska deserve better.  

The Governor must re-engage state government in a robust response to the threats of climate change, with five immediate steps:

• End his silence and inaction on the issue of climate change in Alaska;
• Reconvene the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, or alternatively, establish an Alaska Office on Climate Change, (as I proposed to Gov. Palin in Feb. 2007);
• Report to the Alaska public by Nov. 1 on the status of implementing the 2010 Alaska Climate Change Strategy;
• Engage the State of Alaska in the international effort to reduce global carbon emissions and stabilize climate; and
• Propose in the upcoming legislative session a 10-cent per barrel equivalent state carbon tax to establish the Alaska Climate Change Response Fund, modeled on the state’s oil spill fund (also as I proposed to Gov. Palin in Feb. 2007).

History may well judge our current state government above all on how well it protects Alaska’s future from the devastating impacts of climate change. And so far, things aren’t looking good on that front.

Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, was the university’s first marine advisor for Arctic and Northwest Alaska stationed in Kotzebue, then in Prince William Sound, and then Anchorage. He is now a conservation biologist with Oasis Earth, based in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.