Compass: State needs to get serious about climate change response

Whatever disagreements may exist regarding the causes for the dramatic climate change impacts Alaska is currently experiencing (albeit, on which the science is perfectly clear), it is nevertheless a simple empirical observation that climate change is occurring, and it is, and will continue to be, severely disruptive to the state's ecosystems, economy, and communities. It would be irresponsible of us to continue to ignore this threat, and we desperately need a coherent, well-funded, robust response from state government.

In 2006 the Alaska Legislature established the Alaska Climate Impact Assessment Commission, and in 2007, Gov. Palin established the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet. This was a good start.

However, in the past four years, these efforts have faltered. The legislature's climate commission ended in 2008, and the administration's climate cabinet last met over three years ago, when it too essentially ended.

Today, the administration cannot confirm that any of the recommendations of the former sub-cabinet or the Alaska Climate Change Strategy have been implemented. Agency officials say they 'consider' climate change as they conduct normal state business, but this clearly isn't enough. While villages struggle to respond to the mounting effects of climate change, the 2010 Alaska Climate Change Strategy gathers dust on agency shelves.

And although the legislature's Alaska Arctic Policy Commission is a worthwhile initiative, it has a broad mandate -- including resource development, health, housing, jobs, shipping, security, etc. It is solely a policy advisory body, not an operational body, and thus won't actually implement any climate change response. Thus, we need the Alaska Legislature to make climate change action a priority in its upcoming session.

This week, it was proposed to Alaska legislators that they enact legislation this session to fund and implement a robust state response to climate change impacts and risks. A draft bill was circulated to all legislators, entitled the "Alaska Climate Change Response Act (ACCRA) of 2014," with two principal components:

First, ACCRA would establish the Alaska Office on Climate Change, to provide coordination of all state efforts on climate change, and to assist Alaska citizens, communities, and industries prepare for and adapt to the risks and impacts of climate change, a one-stop-shop for all things climate change related. The office would lead, coordinate, and fund efforts of state government to implement the now-dormant Alaska Climate Change Strategy, and engage the state in regional climate change response efforts.

Second, ACCRA would establish the Alaska Climate Change Response Fund, derived from a nominal 10 cent per-barrel-equivalent (0.1 percent) assessment on oil, gas, and coal produced in Alaska, modeled on the state's oil spill fund (which collects 5 cents per barrel of oil). At today's production levels, the Climate Fund would collect over $20 million per year.

The fund would be used by the Alaska Office on Climate Change to further develop and implement the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, sponsor research and technology development, and conduct other efforts in response to climate change impacts. This would include financial assistance to villages for relocation, erosion control, and other response and adaptation needs.

We'll be paying for climate impacts for decades, and if not from a new climate fund as proposed, then this funding will come from the state's general fund, reducing money for schools, public safety, capital projects, and other basic operating needs of government. And given the current and future federal budget challenges, we can't continue to expect the federal government to pick up the entire tab for climate change response in Alaska. We need to build our own state fund for climate change response, and we should begin doing so immediately.

The scientific community has done its job on this issue, and done it well. Now it's up to the policy makers -- the Legislature and administration -- to implement and fund the mitigation, adaptation and response actions necessary to address the growing impacts and risks from climate change in Alaska. The Legislature should act to pass this proposed climate change legislation immediately.

We owe this to the future generations of Alaskans.

Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, and is now a conservation consultant based in Anchorage.