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Addressing climate change in Alaska means taking action now

  • Author: Ralph Andersen
    | Opinion
    , Reggie Joule
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 7, 2018
  • Published September 7, 2018

A polar bear lies down to dry after a swim in the Chukchi Sea on June 14, 2014. (Brian Battaile/USGS)

The two of us come from two very different parts of Alaska.

On the North Slope and Northwest Arctic, our people have thrived in Alaska's extreme environments for generations, developing technology, hunting whale and seal, and traveling over the snow and sea ice to trade, visit, sing, dance and share our culture. The heart of Alaska's oil industry is located in our traditional homeland, as is the world's largest source of zinc: the Red Dog Mine. The benefits and challenges that these industries create have played a significant part in reshaping our communities, and Alaska as a whole, as our state opened up to development.

In Bristol Bay, our communities have benefited for hundreds of years from the world's richest sockeye salmon run which flows through our region. As a consequence, we're home to Alaska's biggest commercial salmon fishing industry, and we're rich with other resources that have drawn attention for years.

Our regions are home to strong cultural traditions, from language to technology to art, and home to Alaska's lucrative, bustling industries. They aren't mutually exclusive. When it comes to climate change, that's what we want more people in Alaska to recognize. We're a resource state, with modern industries like fishing, oil and gas, and mining that have brought 21st-century amenities to some of our country's most isolated communities. We're also ground zero for climate change.

Science helps us see the big picture — weather models, rates of permafrost thaw, changing sea temperatures — but it's also obvious in smaller ways that are important because of their consistent impact on our daily lives. Sea ice has become less reliable for travel and subsistence hunting. Fish runs and animal migrations are less predictable. Erosion is a significant worry for our coastal communities.

There's no getting around those two truths. Being a resource state isn't an excuse to be complacent in taking action on climate change — and it also means that we have to make decisions that are practical, realistic and allow us to continue responsibly harvesting our resources and diversifying our economy. We need to embrace that duality.

For those who think that's impossible, welcome to the table. Our people have survived for generations in Alaska because of our adaptability, our ingenuity, and our willingness to work together to support our communities as a whole. Addressing climate change is something that we must do together.

We joined the Climate Action Leadership Team last fall because that's the legacy we want to leave to our kids and our grandkids. Our options to respond to climate change are full of opportunities and challenges that Alaskans have already been navigating for decades and yet we have more to do.

We have incredible access to renewable energy from sources like wind, hydro, geo-thermal, tidal and solar energy. Growing renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable technology in Alaska is within our reach. With our small, independently powered communities, we're already a global leader for developing and supporting microgrids, which are expected to be a $20 billion  industry by 2020. The practical knowledge, expertise and technology we are already developing can be shared, especially in other remote locations and developing nations. Because of our high costs of energy, ideas and technology that promote efficiency may not be profitable enough to work down south, but offer welcome relief to the cost of energy here.

Adaptation won't come in the form of one project, one budget appropriation or one opportunity. It comes from having a vision and taking consistent steps toward it, small and large. That's exactly what the climate leadership team's recommendations to the governor will communicate in September — it's our vision, with immediate, medium, and long-term options that Alaska can take to build on the work that our industries, communities and agencies are already doing.

Alaska has been home for hundreds of generations. The only place to start is from where we are. We're ready to get to work.

Ralph Andersen is the president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Association, a member of the Clarks Point Tribe, and a shareholder in Saguyak, Inc. and Bristol Bay Native Corp. Andersen is also chairman of the Bristol Bay Partnership and the Western Alaska Salmon Coalition, and is former co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Reggie Joule is a former state legislator in the Alaska House of Representatives and former Mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, as well as a member of the UK-based Polar Research and Policy Initiative. While serving as mayor, Joule was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President's State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.