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After Paris accords, Alaska would be wise to invest in different energy future

  • Author: Alan Boraas
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 18, 2015

Since oil began flowing in the trans-Alaska pipeline, Alaska's industry leaders, and the public officials who support them, have cast us as a resource extraction state. That may have to change.

The recently completed Paris Climate Agreement signed by 196 nations has set the stage to bring carbon-based emissions down to a net of zero by 2050. According to Chilean climate negotiator Marcelo Mena Carrasco, the Paris agreement is "the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era." That's a sobering thought for an oil resource extraction state already reeling from the whims of geopolitical petroleum economics.

Anthropogenic climate change is no longer a matter of debate; it is a real phenomenon with dire economic, social and ecological consequences. We are headed for a 5-degree C average increase in global warming if we do nothing about the primary cause of climate change -- greenhouse gas emissions.

Like the Buenos Aries, Kyoto and Copenhagen meetings, the Paris United Nations sponsored meeting (COP21) was intended to reach an agreement to ameliorate some of the most severe climate-related effects of the foreseeable future. If ratified, the agreement will limit global average temperature increase to 1.5 Celsius by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to achieve zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of the 21st century. Climate change activists hoped for more on a quicker timeline. Stricter standards indeed may be enacted, as the agreement will be reevaluated every five years.

It is possible that technology will be developed to extract carbon from air, although at this point it is futuristic. In the near future, the only ways to achieve meaningful climate change results is to either leave coal, gas and oil in the ground or enact a carbon tax that would severely reduce the profit and, hence, production of carbon-based energy. Or all three.

The Paris agreement will be enacted if enough countries sign it to collectively represent 55 percent of current global greenhouse gas emissions by April 22, 2016. That will include China and the U.S., the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. We have already signed on because the Obama administration shrewdly framed the agreement as an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Senate ratified in 1992. As a new treaty, it would have needed to be ratified by the Senate, an unlikely event given the number of climate change deniers in that body.

China, the whipping boy of the Copenhagen meetings for its extensive use of dirty coal, now recognizes the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, triggered by such events as the recent red alert in Beijing, during which one could not see 30 feet because of dense air pollution. China will sign the agreement.

Nations that only a few years ago ignored climate change impacts are now signing on. In addition to China and the U.S., the European nations and most developing countries are recognizing the threat of anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, organizations like The World Bank are recognizing that adaptation to climate change is necessary. On the other hand, some countries and corporations are using the crisis to get rich while they can.

Saudi Arabia and its OPEC collaborators are among a few rogue nations and corporations that are taking advantage of climate change economics. Writing in Newsweek, Antonia Juhaz calls the Saudi tactic of dumping oil on the world market, thereby increasing its market share, national suicide. In essence, the Saudis recognize that the Paris agreement and others to come are the harbinger of the end of oil and are making as much money as quickly as possible before restrictions are enforced. It may be good business but it is immoral. And, as Juhaz says, it is suicide, because no country has more to lose than Saudi Arabia. If predicted temperature rises occur, the Arabian Peninsula will be too hot for human habitation.

Alaska has a moral dilemma. Should we be spending massive dollars on a gas pipeline and encourage our corporate partners, Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, to build a natural gas / LNG system that may well be restricted by a carbon tax or otherwise be inoperable by the time it is built? Should we follow the lead of Saudi Arabia and make money while we can? We should acknowledge we missed the window of opportunity on a gas line 30 years ago.

In 2015, we'd be better off taking the moral and economic high road and investing in geothermal, tidal and river-flow energy.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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