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Alaska's local leaders can't afford partisan deadlock on climate change

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 17, 2015

"Think global, act local" is, yes, a cliché, but it's also a reality for borough, city and village leaders across Alaska who must confront the direct impacts of global climate change. Left with few choices, local leaders and their constituents are developing new and innovative ways to protect and preserve their communities.

Climate change has become a hot-button political issue at the national and state levels, and attempts to address it have been delayed -- even pushed aside -- by partisanship. Political blockades have thwarted most attempts to set national policy.

Local leaders can't wait for the federal government and many state governments to adopt tighter emissions standards, emergency management practices, or other mitigations. Alaskans have confronted first-hand the damaging ice jams, thawing permafrost, destructive coastal erosion, devastating wildfires and other real problems. The effects of climate change are well-known and observed daily.

Local governments cannot afford to debate whether climate change is lasting or just temporary, whether it is naturally occurring or produced by human activity, whether it will last 50 years or more than 100. Regardless who or what is to blame, local governments have to take action. Roads and utility lines, homes and offices, and schools and hospitals must be maintained and protected. While citizens are cynical about "big government," they still expect their local governments to work efficiently and deliver direct services.

For local leaders, climate change is not a political football or snippy sound bite. Their communities cannot afford such indulgence. Climate change and its impacts present life-and-property decisions that can harm, even ruin communities and their services. No mayor can stand on the sidelines watching city streets wash out to sea. While D.C. talks, Alaska communities must react.

Alaska's boroughs, cities and villages are responsible for protecting lives and property every day. Beyond the routine fire and police calls, this includes wildfires, floods, coastal erosion and extreme storms. Not only do local governments respond to disasters and damage, they plan ahead to take action to reduce the severity of these events and build more resilient communities.

Alaska's local governments know that doing something today to adapt, address and lessen the damages of climate change makes tomorrow's risks easier to manage, while saving current and future taxpayer dollars in the process.

When the Ketchikan Gateway Borough used pool covers to reduce heat loss and used biofuels to operate the Ketchikan International Airport, petroleum dependency was reduced and taxpayer money was saved.

When the City of Homer and the City and Borough of Sitka developed and adopted climate action plans, information became available on how varying climate possibilities could affect the communities and what are the responsible options for reducing the risks.

When Sitka finished the expansion of its Blue Lake Hydroelectric Dam, it obtained a source of affordable, fish-friendly, clean energy for generations to come. And, with no federal funding and only one-third state funding, the community made it happen by accepting higher utility bills now for greater benefits in the future.

When villages like Kaltag and Nulato were faced with rapidly growing wildfires due to extremely dry and warm conditions, village mayors and chiefs worked with their neighbors to find threatened residents safe places to stay and food to eat.

When Galena was hit with record-breaking floods, the city manager and mayor worked with construction companies, neighbors and charities to bring back electricity, potable water, facilities for elders, and even softball fields and the indoor pool. Shelters and living accommodations were rebuilt and community morale was restored when local officials found solutions.

When the Municipality of Anchorage and the City and Borough of Juneau built schools that met Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, they planned for benefits that will accrue 20 to 30 years from now, along with savings that can be used for books, modern learning technology and classrooms.

When the Fairbanks North Star Borough renovated its school facilities, it reduced the energy use rate per square foot to one of the lowest in the state. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation acknowledged the major gains from the reduced energy footprint. FNSB also installed energy efficient lighting in most borough facilities to save electrical energy costs and converted many of its large public buildings from fuel oil to clean-burning natural gas.

With natural gas, communities in Interior Alaska are committed to improving the air quality, and reducing airborne particulates and sulfur emissions, which benefits the health of all residents.

The City of Nome was the first in the state and second in the nation to include climate change adaptation and mitigation measures in its Local Hazardous Mitigation Plans. More than 80 communities have now adopted such measures.

Investments in disaster resilience, such as earthquake-resistant designs for public buildings, recognize that every $1 spent on mitigation returns at least a tenfold benefit in reduced post-disaster rebuilding and repair costs.

Instead of endlessly debating an issue that is already occurring before our eyes, Alaska's local governments are taking action to protect the public -- and taxpayer investments -- by building disaster-resilient communities.

State and federal lawmakers and agency officials can learn from Alaska's local leaders. The lessons are straightforward: Stop fighting science, stop the distraction of dueling experts, stop the made-for-TV accusations, and stop the partisanship. The time has arrived for definitive action to preserve and protect our communities.

John Duffy is a former manager of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Also contributing to this commentary were Mike Navarre, mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough; Mike Taylor, mayor of Gustavus; Walt Wrede, former city manager of Homer; Maija Katak Lukin, mayor of Kotzebue; Lamar Cotten, local government consultant and former rural municipal manager; Denise Michaels, mayor of Nome; Randy Robertson, city manager of Cordova; and Alice Ruby, mayor of Dillingham.

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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