I write this from the United Nations climate change conference, COP25, in Madrid, Spain. While here, I cannot help but to reflect on the effects of climate change on my home state of Alaska. Prominent speakers have mentioned the impacts that climate change is having on Alaska, and research shows that indigenous communities, including Alaska Natives, are facing the most devastating consequences. Climate change is a human rights and public health crisis that must be treated as such.
Climate change is already forcing rural communities to relocate from their ancestral villages due to melting permafrost and erosion. Fishing communities, including my own, Kodiak, will not be able to fish for Pacific cod during the 2020 fishery due to warming ocean temperatures. Even more, our world-famous wildlife are experiencing warmer temperatures and shifts in water availability that are affecting their ability to find suitable habitats and food. There is no doubt that climate change is impacting the cultures, livelihoods, and natural resources of Alaskans.
The changes in climate that we are experiencing are caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Natural processes release minimal greenhouse gases, but humans have exponentially increased the rates of greenhouse gas emissions since the mid-20th century as a result of burning fossil fuels. Humans are undoubtedly causing climate change. However, with a human-created problem, there can be a human-created solution.
At COP25, countries from around the world are attempting to advance those solutions by negotiating international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change. Meeting international agreements for climate action is a key component of reducing some of the worst effects of climate change, but it is not enough to solve this challenging global issue. States, cities and businesses must also do their part to address climate change at a local and regional level. Alaskans are on the front lines of climate change impacts and must hold the responsible leaders and industries accountable.
Oil and gas is the biggest industry in our state, supplying roughly 85% of Alaska’s budget. However, there are a host of reasons to be wary of continuing to rely on the oil and gas industry for our state’s economy: It contributes to climate change, which is hurting our residents, and research suggests that it may no longer be economically feasible to continue drilling in Alaska. The International Energy Agency predicts that peak oil will hit within the next decade, meaning that Alaska needs to quickly diversify its economy to avoid stranded assets and an economic downturn after peak oil. Moreover, markets are moving away from fossil fuels as the price of renewable energy becomes competitive and, in some cases, even cheaper than oil and gas.
Despite the dismal forecast for the fossil fuel industry, the current administration has opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. Drilling in ANWR will only be feasible if oil is sold at $78 per barrel, a price that has not been seen in several years. Continuing to pursue oil and gas development in Alaska is not only economically shortsighted, it is also largely unpopular, with 70% of American voters opposed to it. If we continue to rely on the fossil fuel industry as a state, we are not only limiting ourselves economically; we are supporting the industry that is responsible for losses and damages of culture and property in Alaska’s most vulnerable communities.
Within Alaska, we see innovative solutions for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating the effects of climate change. My hometown of Kodiak is nearly 100% powered by renewable energy from wind turbines and hydro power without an increase in rates. Researchers at the University of Alaska are exploring opportunities for wave and tidal energy. The Denali Education Center in Denali National Park has substantially lowered operating costs by installing solar thermal collectors. There is no doubt that we have numerous successful models within our state to help us transition to clean energy and a sustainable economy.
Climate change is threatening our cultures, communities, livelihoods, and natural resources. The public health and human rights issues caused by climate change will persist if we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to dominate our economy and politics. Out of respect for ourselves, for fellow Alaskans who are already suffering due to climate change, and for future generations, it is our responsibility to hold the fossil fuel industry and our local and state governments accountable to ensure that Alaska has a prosperous future.
Anelise Zimmer grew up in Kodiak and is now a graduate student at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She studies solutions for climate change in natural-resource dependent communities, with an emphasis on coastal regions.
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