Opinions

Alaska’s infrastructure innovation can lead by example and break new ground

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Alaska’s infrastructure has been built to withstand challenges: from earthquakes to temperatures far below zero, we build everything with the knowledge that it will need to endure some of the harshest conditions on Earth. However, as our climate changes, those conditions change too, and the way we build must adjust accordingly. Reflecting the urgency of the challenges we face, President Joe Biden recently signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law after it passed the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support. Alaskans are innovators — there’s no doubt about that — and our state is certainly up for this challenge. Across Alaska, there are already several efforts in progress to ensure the places we live, work, learn and recreate can withstand the conditions we’ll face in the future — and are already facing today.

The Denali Commission, as an independent federal agency aimed at providing critical utilities, infrastructure and economic support across the state, particularly in rural areas, is supporting communities especially vulnerable to environmental change. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), now part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), works to advance the development of climate-appropriate shelter, especially in Arctic environments. Pt Capital, an Alaskan investment firm, has supported remote housing endeavors, specifically on the North Slope. All three of these organizations, though they employ a diverse array of approaches, recognize that better, more resilient infrastructure usually means more energy efficient infrastructure — resulting in infrastructure upgrades that are a win-win for people and the planet.

As Alaskans experience increased erosion, flooding and permafrost degradation, all of which are exacerbated by climate change, a better built environment is the answer to safe and healthy living in our environment today. Investing in critical infrastructure today will prevent these impacts from worsening in the future. The opportunities in resilient infrastructure stretch beyond strong houses and less reliance on fossil fuels. Rethinking how we build infrastructure will create jobs through workforce development programs that train people to build differently while taking place-based knowledge and merging it with existing toolsets. By involving the communities and peoples where this infrastructure is being built, we can co-develop what works for each community and their environment. Especially in remote Alaska and Alaska Native communities, it takes a holistic approach to thrive. Infrastructure development shouldn’t just involve housing, economics or energy alone but instead take a multi-faceted approach embracing all aspects. As infrastructure development incorporates both Western and Indigenous wisdom, each community is able to take control of its own future.

The concept of a more holistic approach to infrastructure — in that it’s not just roads and bridges, but also homes and energy and jobs — has taken hold across our government. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, as one of the architects of the bill, ensured that it included a number of provisions aimed not only at Alaska itself but also at climate and energy issues. In addition to providing money for roads and bridges, the bill also provides funding for battery processing and manufacturing, electric ferries, assistance for tribes adapting to climate change, and renewable energy projects across the state –- all awarded through a competitive grant process.

This bill provides once-in-a-generation investment for Alaska to expand climate adaptation programs, address water access, further infrastructure development through the Denali Commission, develop our ports, and invest in resilience. It provides $550 billion in new spending over the next five years, growing America’s economy, creating jobs, and pushing against inflation — all without raising taxes — and made possible by our Alaskan congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. So, to Sen. Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young: Alaska thanks you.

With our congressional delegation leading at the intersection of infrastructure and climate in Washington, D.C., and organizations like the Denali Commission, CCHRC-NREL, communities, tribes and others joining them across the state, Alaska has the ability to demonstrate what a more resilient, sustainably built environment looks like. Our climate is changing, and it’s time to ensure our approach to infrastructure changes with it so we can continue living in this incredible state we call home for generations to come.

Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer is an indigenous leader and tribal member of the Native Village of Kotzebue. Cathy Giessel is a lifelong Alaskan, former state senator, Senate president, and chairwoman of the Senate Resources Committee. Cathy lives in Anchorage and is a nurse practitioner. Bruno Grunau is regional director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. The center researches and demonstrates homes and building technologies throughout Alaska that are climate- and culturally appropriate.

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