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Alaskans need a much more robust response to climate change

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 3, 2014

"There is no Planet B," "Climate Change is a Health Crisis," "Pricing Pollution is the Solution," and "Jobs, Justice, and Clean Energy." These are but a few of the hundreds of messages held aloft by an estimated 310,000 to 400,000 marchers in the People's Climate March held in New York City on Sept. 21. The march, organized by a broad coalition of over 1400 organizations from labor, social justice, and indigenous peoples to the medical and environmental community, was joined by over 2,500 concurrent events in 162 countries. It was by far the world's largest protest against climate inaction. Yet, the coverage of this event in Alaska's media was scant at best.

For many years now, Alaska has been heating up at twice the rate as the Lower 48. Alaska has been on the front line of climate change for at least a decade ... retreating glaciers, shrinking sea ice, raging forest fires, melting permafrost, and village re-location. In 2003, the Government Accounting Office issued a report on the susceptibility of Alaska's Native villages to erosion and flooding. The office noted that 183 out of 216 Alaska villages, nearly 86 percent of Native villages, "are more susceptible to flooding and erosion due in part to rising temperatures." This alone should compel the governor of Alaska to act deliberately and decisively on all aspects of climate change. Instead, Gov. Parnell's deliberate inaction makes Alaska the only region on the west coast of North America to not have a climate action plan. In essence, we are the laggards on the front line of climate change. What is the governor waiting for ... the federal government to step in and address this issue for us, and then to be critical when they do?

A few readers may be asking, "So what difference does it make if Alaska does nothing about greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?" Turns out according to the Mitigation Advisory Group's August 2009 report to the Climate Sub-Cabinet (established under Gov. Palin), Alaska, on a per-capita basis, emits three times more CO2 than the national average and more than any other state. The report also documented that Alaska's rate of emission increase from 1990 to 2005 was about twice the national rate and was increasing faster than any other state. As the largest per capita emitter and fastest of the states to increase emissions, don't we have a moral obligation to do our part? As Alaskans enjoying a PFD check made possible by the burning of fossil fuels don't we have a moral obligation to at least contribute to the solution? By acting we make a difference morally; where it matters most.

A recent ruling in a lawsuit filed by six Alaska children reminds us that we also have a public trust obligation to act on reducing emissions. According to a Sept. 12 story in Alaska Dispatch News, six young plaintiffs faulted state officials for failing to significantly reduce air pollution and resulting climate impacts and thereby breached the public trust doctrine and "diminished prospects for members of their generation to enjoy a livable future." Although the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed the case on other grounds, they opined that the plaintiffs "do make a good case that the atmosphere is a public trust and that environmental damage is of public interest."

The topic of climate has been almost invisible in this year's statewide political elections. This week, both Sen. Mark Begich and challenger Dan Sullivan responded to a question about ocean acidification at the Kodiak fisheries debate; Begich said global warming is obvious and called for action; Sullivan called for sound science. But I could not find any references to climate on the campaign web pages of either Begich or Sullivan.

Gov. Parnell's campaign website trumpets his failure to address climate change. Under his "stopping federal overreach" list of accomplishments, his website notes, "When the EPA couldn't pass its job-killing carbon tax through Congress, the EPA tried to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. We fought to stop it." This accolade misses the mark on multiple levels, including the fact that British Columbia has demonstrated that a properly designed carbon tax creates more jobs, not less. A properly designed carbon tax is one that invests in renewable energy and provides a middle class tax break.

The unity team of Bill Walker and Bryon Mallott just posted its climate statement under the tab, The Arctic and Changing Climate. It reads: "The residents of arctic Alaska are a valuable resource for understanding the impact of that change, and their traditional knowledge, life experience and voices will be included in arctic and climate change policy development. I will also look for economic opportunities that may be created by this change. I'll work to position the University of Alaska as the international leader in Arctic policy, energy research and climate change." While the unity team is more on track, it too needs to become more forceful in its commitment to step up climate action to the level of our neighbors.

According to National Geographic (Sept. 24), there are three takeaways from last week's march and the United Nation's climate summit:

1) A movement to fight climate change has real people power,

2) more companies are responding to public pressure to halt deforestation and

3) there's growing pressure to help the world's most vulnerable countries.

When Todd Stern, the U.S. Department of State's special envoy for climate change, was asked by reporter Elizabeth Shogren about the impact of this week's event, he started talking about the biggest climate demonstration ever. "You had 400,000 people on the streets of Manhattan. You have to say that that matters."

Will any of the momentum on display in New York City matter to Alaska? Will the Supreme Court ruling that Alaskans have the right to be in court because of harms from climate disruption make a difference? Plaintiff Nelson Kanuk, a teenager from the southwest village of Kipnuk, told National Public Radio that they "will keep asking the court until someone (including our Legislature and executive) answers with the help we need. How long must we wait and watch our ice melt and our food sources diminish? What if the political will comes when it's too late? The Court should not wait to be a check on the other branches of government after it's too late to matter."

Thank you, Nelson Kanuk, and the other young plaintiffs for boldly asking these questions to Alaska's Supreme Court. You represent the hope that Alaska will eventually join the march toward solving the climate crisis.

Kate Troll is a member of the Juneau Borough Assembly and was appointed by Gov. Palin to the Mitigation Advisory Group on Climate Change.

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(at)alaskadispatch.com

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