President should keep focus on climate change as he travels Alaska

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said last week she hopes President Barack Obama does not merely use Alaska as a backdrop to talk about climate change and that the trip will highlight the development of the Arctic. Murkowski's term merely suggests climate change is just a passing issue and not one of the greatest global challenges we face.

I've been working on the issue of climate change for almost a decade now. The last time our congressional delegation addressed climate change as a national challenge instead of just as a vehicle for opening shipping lanes and access to Arctic resources was in July 2007 when the late Sen. Ted Stevens and Sen. Murkowski signed onto to the Low Carbon Economy Act of 2007.

Back then Stevens noted that "there is little doubt that Alaskans are feeling the effects of climate change more than anyone else in our nation. Regardless of whether these changes are caused solely by human activity, we must take steps to protect people in the Arctic." Murkowski also raised concerns in 2007 by noting, "The permafrost is melting, Arctic ice is disappearing, and wildlife habitat is changing. It is responsible for us to take actions to reduce carbon emissions, as long as we can do it without harming our economy."

Despite numerous reports that demonstrate we can address climate change without harming the economy, Congress failed to pass the Low Carbon Economy Act or any other legislation dealing directly with climate change. The only notable action came this year when the U.S. Senate managed to proclaim that climate change is real, a fact that has been demonstrated by strong scientific evidence for more than a decade. However, it is apparently not caused in any significant way by humans, according to the follow-up votes cast by Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Back in 2007 no one could have imagined senators, and especially those signing onto climate legislation, voting to deny the scientific evidence of climate change. Why must we question the consensus conclusion of 97 percent of the world's climate scientists instead of addressing the problem? Do our senators believe that by voting to deny the scientific evidence, they can make it disappear?

When it comes to our state gubernatorial and legislative leaders the track record on climate change is no better. The last meaningful effort came in 2007, when former Gov. Sarah Palin signed an administrative order establishing the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet with the purpose of preparing a climate change strategy for Alaska. The sub-cabinet formed two advisory groups, the first to focus on preparing for a changing climate (adaptation), and the second to consider measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. These advisory groups finished their reports just before Palin got caught up in the national spotlight. Once she became the darling of Fox News in the 2008 presidential elections, she dismissed climate science as "snake oil."

After Gov. Sean Parnell took over, no further efforts were made to implement the recommendations contained in the adaptation and mitigation reports, and the climate sub-cabinet went into inactive mode. When Parnell refused in June 2014 to participate in the Pacific Coast Action Plan for Climate and Energy, a regional approach to address climate change, Alaska became the only region on the West Coast of North America not actively engaged in reducing greenhouse emissions. Even Mexico has a plan and is more engaged than Alaska. However under Parnell, state officials did work to position Alaska for an age in which shipping traffic across the pole doubles every year, and the vast oil, coal, zinc and copper deposits beneath Arctic waters become more accessible.

The track record for the Alaska Legislature engaging in climate change is not much better.

Nonetheless, in 2013 the Legislature did establish the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission to "positively influence federal policy on the Arctic," and climate change was listed as a topic that could be considered. The commission then held hearings around the state and produced a report for the Legislature. In 2015, the Legislature adopted the commission's four vision statements as state policy. Guess what? Not one of those vision statements mentions the words "climate change." It is not surprising when you consider Sen. Lesil McGuire's sponsor statement for SB 16, "Globally, all eyes are on the Arctic with new opportunities and challenges emerging as the region becomes increasingly accessible. Alaskans are on the forefront of new exploration and use of Arctic resources, and of new circumpolar cooperation."

Instead of moving forward from the days of 2007 when our two U.S. senators supported action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we've moved backwards while remaining keenly focused on reaping the benefits of a changing Arctic. Murkowski's comments about wanting the president to highlight Arctic development instead of merely addressing climate change are the latest example of Alaska's one-dimensional approach to climate change.

To get a sense of how little Alaska does to address our moral and economic responsibility to reduce emissions, all one need do is witness the continued natural gas venting and flaring from oil and gas operations on the North Slope and in Cook Inlet. This occurs despite the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's policies to minimize waste.

When one considers the polls showing that Alaskans strongly support action to address climate change, and the frequent news of climate related events (last week it was unusually warm waters killing salmon in the Mat-Su), it's hard to fathom why our statewide leaders shy away from addressing climate change. For example, a 2014 poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change found that 55 percent of Alaskans worry "global warming will harm future generations," and "76 percent of Alaskans support research to expand renewable energy sources," while "67 percent support regulating carbon emissions."

In a video released by the White House, President Obama says he is coming to Alaska because Alaskans are "on the line of one of the greatest challenges we face this century – climate change." He knows Alaska is the poster state for climate change, but does he know Alaska is also the poster state for climate inaction? The president should keep the spotlight on climate change, period.

Kate Troll was appointed by former Gov. Sarah Palin to the state Mitigation Advisory Board on Climate Change. She is a former executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska and serves on the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly.

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