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Alaska stewardship demands transition from fossil fuels

  • Author: Rev. Curtis E. Karns
    | Opinion
    , Rev. Shelley Wickstrom
    | Opinion
    , Fr. Mark Lattime
    | Opinion
    , Rev. Carlo Rapanut
    | Opinion
    , Fr. David Mahaffey
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 13, 2017
  • Published August 13, 2017

A trail leads up a bluff in Shishmaref, a Northwest Alaska village that has gained international attention for erosion attributed to climate change. (MARC LESTER / ADN archive 2013)

This statement comes from us as denominational leaders, not from our constituent churches or their members.  It reflects our conversations as a group of leaders, and our conviction that this moment is an important one for deciding the economic and environmental ethics of Alaska.

This is a time to listen to nature, which includes the people. Indeed, when we dare to listen, God often speaks to us through nature. We see this already in our Scriptures: A bush burns and a movement for emancipation is awakened (Exodus 3:1-17); a new star shines and the Savior is born (Matthew 2:1-2); a donkey refuses to go forward and so tells us what fools we are, walking blindly into danger (Numbers 2:22-30).

"Listen," Job 12:7 tells us, "the birds in the air, the animals on the ground, the plants in the earth and the fish in the sea will preach to you." If that was true in Job's time, it is also true now. This is a time to listen — to pay attention to what is happening to the Alaska environment.

As Christians, we speak from a faith perspective about why there should be great passion in caring for God's creatures. We recognize that God has created all things for proper relationship with each other. This message begins already in the first chapter of Genesis, telling us how all creation unfolds, one thing after another, one day at a time. The point becomes clear in Genesis 2:4, stating, "These are the generations of the creation of heaven and earth, when they were created." In Genesis, the phrase "these are the generations of" always means this is a genealogy, or a description of a family line. We should be passionate about caring for God's creatures because we are family.

Indeed, the biblical version of the genealogy teaches that humans are the youngest members of the family of creation. As the youngest members, we are tasked with caring for all other creatures, for they are our elders and require our respect. Perhaps this is the best guideline for the biblical dominion that humans obviously exercise. We have power for the good or for the destruction of God's creation; we must choose for good (Genesis 1:27-30).

Yet, runaway climate change is still not getting the kind of response that is needed. As church leaders who travel across this state, we can tell you that the residents along the Bering Sea know this. Vanishing polar ice is changing the weather patterns in the Arctic so drastically that hunters cannot safely get to the walrus, which provide 80 percent of their protein. They are listening.

In the Arctic, travelers on snowmobiles are falling through ice in midwinter — at a time when the ice should be more than a meter thick. At the same time, invasive species from the southlands are migrating north so fast our fish and game laws don't know how to keep up. As fellow Alaskans, we know that it is time to listen to what nature is telling us.

The vast majority of climate scientists also know this. They know that 75 percent of the fossil fuels we already know about must never be developed if we are to have a chance of avoiding the loss of civilization as we know it. This means the nations of the world must be strategic in deciding which fossil fuels to produce and which to leave in the ground.

But Alaskans also know that Earth care is only part of what God is telling us. We know that one-third of Alaska jobs and most of Alaska's tax revenue are based on oil production. Our social well-being is at risk right now, pushing us to develop more oil and gas wells. In Alaska, our people and our legislators are backed into a corner. We have to deal with the needs of our people today.

Earth care makes sense, because without it the suffering of the people, and of most creatures, will be intense. But the same compassion that demands Earth care, and demands it right now, also demands people care. Anything less is ethically shallow and fails to pay attention to important constituent groups with their concerns. As Christians motivated by biblical ethics, we therefore call on our political and economic leaders to act as stewards of creation and stewards of a just economy that supports people. As others have phrased it, we need a three-part ethic: Earth care, people care and fair share.

In Alaska, this means we need an economic plan that provides for our residents while we transition away from fossil fuel dependency. Given the current national political situation, Alaska needs to develop its own plan for how to be an effective contributor to the solution of climate change. Where does Alaska's economy need to go in order to contribute to a good and sustainable future?

At the same time, if new oil and gas development needs to be a part of this transitional time, it should only happen as a part of an intentional plan for transitioning to that good and sustainable future. New development that is not part of a plan for transition away from fossil fuel dependency would be irresponsible, because it would fail to care for the Earth in the face of accelerating climate change. Until such a plan is in place, it would be irresponsible to go forward with new development.

Alaska is in economic recession largely due to declining oil production, compounded by the current low oil prices. Both of these reflect our dependence on oil for our cash economy. In our view, this requires immediate work for an economic plan to design the transition away from fossil fuel dependency, not new fossil fuel development without a viable plan for a just transition.

Rev. Dr. Curtis E. Karns is executive presbyter, Presbytery of Yukon, Presbyterian Church (USA); Rev. Shelley Wickstrom is bishop, Synod of Alaska, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; Fr. Mark Lattime is bishop, Diocese of Alaska, Episcopal Church USA; Rev. Carlo Rapanut is superintendent of the Alaska United Methodist Conference; Fr. David Mahaffey is bishop, Diocese of Sitka and Alaska, Orthodox Church in America.

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