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Anchorage mayor vows to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after Trump’s Paris pullout

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 2, 2017

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is promising to maintain efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions following President Donald Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal, while some advocates question why Alaska Gov. Bill Walker hasn't approached the issue more energetically.

"We'll continue to address climate change," Berkowitz said in a phone interview Friday, a day after Trump's announcement. "And we're doing it because it is a part of looking out for the future of the local economy and it's about making sure we're good stewards of the place we live."

A group of American cities and states has quickly coalesced around upholding the Paris emissions targets despite Trump's announcement, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg coordinating an effort to submit a pledge by the group to the United Nations.

Anchorage hasn't developed a comprehensive analysis of its emissions or outlined formal targets for reductions, steps taken by dozens of other major cities around the country and world. And Berkowitz didn't commit to formally joining the group of mayors, governors and businesses coordinated by Bloomberg.

But the city has commissioned just such an emissions analysis from an Anchorage firm, DeerStone Consulting, and expects its results within weeks. Berkowitz also pointed to ongoing efforts that should help reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

The city has replaced thousands of streetlights with more energy-efficient LED bulbs, and the municipal utility just opened a new natural gas power plant that emits 30 percent less carbon dioxide to generate the same amount of electricity as legacy plants.

Berkowitz, a Democrat in an officially nonpartisan office, framed the issue in economic terms rather than political ones, pointing to endorsements of the Paris agreement by oil companies like BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil — along with climate change's disproportionate impact in northern latitudes, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

Global warming threatens Anchorage with higher fire danger, infestations of invasive species and road damage from more freeze-thaw cycles, Berkowitz said.

"This is common sense about making sure that we show leadership in an area where we're disproportionately impacted," Berkowitz said. "These are business decisions."

Berkowitz's pledge came as Walker faces growing pressure from environmental advocates and Democratic legislators for more aggressive state action on climate change.

The governor issued a statement Thursday that neither endorsed nor denounced Trump's proposal, saying that in spite of the withdrawal, "Alaska will continue to work to boost national defense and security measures for our 6,640 miles of Alaskan coastline, increase resilience for Arctic communities and provide energy leadership for the nation."

Both Republicans and Democrats said Walker's reaction was perplexing, with one GOP writer, Suzanne Downing, calling it "mystifying" and saying it was a "tortured statement that signifies nothing."

Addressing climate change was a central state policy a decade ago. Former Gov. Sarah Palin created a subcabinet and working groups to develop a climate change strategy, while the Legislature established its own commission to assess impacts of global warming.

But Palin's efforts stalled as her political aspirations rose, and climate change ceased to be a priority of her successor, Republican Sean Parnell.

"You had industry representatives as well as conservation organizations — the whole hierarchy of government sitting down together and talking through issues. It kind of went dead in the water," said Bruce Botelho, the former attorney general, who sat on a climate advisory group.

Walker is a Republican-turned-independent who aligned himself with Democrats to defeat Parnell, raising the hopes of Alaskans who support more aggressive action on climate change. Advocates point to erosion that threatens coastal villages, ocean acidification that could hurt Alaska fisheries and thawing permafrost that could damage state infrastructure.

Administration officials have said they're considering reviving the climate subcabinet. And Walker, at his State of the State speech in January, said officials were developing a "framework" to respond to global warming and to "maintain the integrity of our lands, air and water for future generations."

But no such framework has been announced, and neither has any action emerged on the subcabinet, frustrating some who wanted to see more decisive moves.

"We've been frustrated at the pace of change," said Bob Shavelson, head of the Homer-based environmental group Cook Inletkeeper.

"The governor says the right things," he added. "But we need to back it up. We can't simply continue to put the blinders on and pretend that we can continue to be an oil and gas state forever."

The Walker administration plans to advance its global warming initiative once this year's legislative session is over, with the potential to issue an administrative order, said Claire Richardson, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Democrat who's played a major role in developing the climate strategy.

"A lot of things have been put on the back burner as we face the fiscal crisis," Richardson said. "You're going to see more focus on this once we get through the legislative session."

Walker's administration, in a partnership with research program Alaska Sea Grant, just hired a new fellow, Danielle Meeker, who's finishing a master's degree in climate science this month, Richardson said. Her yearlong fellowship in the governor's office will include work on global warming.

The Legislature, however, remains divided over how to tackle climate change.

Members of the largely Democratic House majority coalition are proposing legislation to create a response commission bankrolled by a penny-per-barrel tax on oil that flows through the trans-Alaska pipeline, since oil is a fossil fuel and its burning contributes to global warming.

But members of the Republican-led Senate majority oppose the bill, with North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill panning the effort as an "anti-development agenda" that attacks "the very industry that fuels our economy."

That same schism persists among some of the politicians eyed as potential replacements for Walker.

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who's considering a run for governor next year, said he doesn't think the state can make more than a minuscule impact on the global climate.

"We don't have emissions. I think it's a moot issue for Alaska — it's 780,000 people spread over a subcontinent," Dunleavy said in a phone interview. "If Anchorage thinks it will make people feel better, emotionally, to change out light bulbs and stuff, then more power to them."

If the city tries to adhere to the Paris accord, Dunleavy argued, it would benefit the Mat-Su, his home region, "because people will move there and businesses will move there."

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat viewed by state GOP leaders as another potential gubernatorial candidate, argued that adaptation to global warming's threat could boost the state's economy, and that ignoring it risks missing out on new jobs.

Alaska could be a test site for alternative fuels for military planes and wind power could lessen the state's dependence on fossil fuels, Begich said. New research projects could study the impact of global warming on fish and wildlife populations.

The state, Begich added, should be a "center for excellence and innovation when it comes to climate change."

"The governor and the Legislature should be on this thing without a second thought," he said. "Unless I missed something, I haven't seen much. I think there's a void there."

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Devin Kelly contributed to this report.

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