As Alaska warms, climate change awkward subject for lawmakers

A bald eagle sits perched on a tree near the Mendenhall Glacier on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, in Juneau, Alaska. How will climate change affect Alaska's future? (Becky Bohrer/AP)
A bald eagle sits perched on a tree near the Mendenhall Glacier on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, in Juneau, Alaska. How will climate change affect Alaska’s future? (Becky Bohrer/AP)
 When it comes to climate change, Alaska is seen as a bellwether. Temperatures have risen nearly 4 degrees over the past 50 years, double the national average. But even though Alaska figures in discussion of climate change nationally, it’s rarely a major topic of conversation in Juneau. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez examines why.
The last time legislation specifically focused on climate change was in 2006.

There have since been energy efficiency bills, and air quality bills, and resolutions pushing back on air quality regulations, but nothing that gets at the massive, complicated issue of climate change.

So, it was a bit unusual to hear legislators air their opinions on the matter last week.

The discussion kicked off when Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, led a press conference on a new report on Arctic policy.

“There’s no question that the Arctic and the climate are changing,” said McGuire.

Possibilities for resource development

The document lays out the positions Alaska should take as sea ice melts and different nations try to carve out influence in the Arctic. The word “climate” appears nearly 30 times in the document, occasionally in the context of an “investment climate.” The word “opportunity” appears in equal measure.

Over the course of an hour, lawmakers focused on the possibilities for resource development, for increased commerce, and for private investment to the tune of $100 billion.

McGuire described their approach as realistic.

“The development’s going to happen with or without Alaska,” said McGuire. “It’s already happening.”

Some members, like Anchorage Republican Cathy Giessel, even described it as potentially a good thing.

“What’s happening is a cyclical thing. And it’s another opportunity,” said Giessel. “It does depend on how you view change, as either an opportunity or a threat. And of course, I think our commission views it as an opportunity.”

Climate adaptation?

The climate change discussion bled into other committee meetings. At a House Resources hearing, Rep. Bennie Nageak, a Barrow Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, expressed dismay at federal rules meant to protect species from climate change.

“Everything created in this world has its own adaptive capabilities to changes in anything in their lives,” said Nageak. “Not only man does that, but the animals — they adapt to everything.”

Some, like Anchorage Democrat Andy Josephson, pushed back on the statement that the ecosystem is that resilient.

“We are the poster child because of the change is so self-evident, and I think empirically proven at this point,” said Josephson.

But it was Rep. Craig Johnson, a Republican from Anchorage, who seemed to capture the pervading attitude in the building.

“When I hear arguments about opening 1002 — ‘Oh, climate change’ — I don’t think it’s maybe one coal plant in China [in equivalence]. So, until we get a handle on the world’s climate change, I’m tired of Alaska being the poster child and the fundraising tool to save the planet at the expense of our economy,” said Johnson. “I am not certain that if we shut down every development in the State of Alaska, moved everyone from Alaska and moved them out, that we would have any effect on climate change.”

Alaska microcosm

To some, it’s not surprising that exchanges like these are rare.

“Alaska is a tough place to talk about climate change,” says Michael Tubman, a fellow with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “But it’s also a microcosm of the whole issue. At the same time, the fossil fuel industry is a very important part of the state’s economy.”

Tubman worked on energy and environmental issues for Govs. Sarah Palin, Frank Murkowski, and Tony Knowles. He says there’s a tension where the state is dependent on oil production for its economy and at the same time vulnerable to a lot of the immediate effects of those same fossil fuels.

And as those effects are becoming more obvious, the national conversation about it has become polarized.

“I think over the last ten years, we’ve seen climate change change from a bipartisan issue that was able to be discussed with different types of solutions coming from different types of governors and federal officials to a far more partisan conversation, and that’s been really unfortunate,” says Tubman.

Elephant in the room

So, climate change is kind of an elephant in the room. It could hurt the fishing and tourism industries, and the state needs to figure out how to deal with erosion in villages along the coast and melting permafrost and all the associated costs. But tackling climate change itself can seem too ambitious and maybe even contrary to the state’s economic interest.

Tubman thinks there are a few things that can be done at the state level to address climate change beyond mitigation. He notes Alberta has put a price on carbon while still maintaining a healthy oil industry, and that Texas has made big strides in wind energy.

As far as development of Alaska’s resources go, Tubman says that can be done in ways that reduce emissions by capturing carbon and using it to produce more oil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.

Tubman also thinks it’s worth reviving something like the climate change sub-cabinet that existed during the Palin administration.

“There is a lot of value in having an ongoing conversation where people can look at this long-term issue from all different angles,” says Tubman.

Larry Hartig has served as the commissioner of environmental conservation since 2007, and he was part of that group while it was active. He says the Walker administration is currently discussing its strategy for climate change, and sees it as a significant challenge.

“Our glaciers are getting smaller. We’re seeing higher rates of coastal erosion. We’re seeing thawing of the tundra on the North Slope. Our surface ponds are disappearing, draining away,” says Hartig. “You can’t sit there and say it’s not happening.”

Hartig says he wants to re-examine the work of the climate change sub-cabinet to find out what’s changed and what work still needs to be done. He says the pragmatic approach is likely the right one for Alaska.

“You don’t have to sit there and figure out, ‘Well, how much is due to greenhouse gas emissions from a man-made source?’” says Hartig. “You just have to think about erosion. You have to think about melting permafrost, and these things.”

Basically, Alaska doesn’t have to solve climate change: It just has to start dealing with it.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Report warns more Arctic shipping will increase warming, affect health, Radio Canada International

Greenland: Study finds increase in litter on Arctic seafloor, Blog by Mia Bennett

Norway: Climate change will lead to ecosystem clash, Barents Observer

Russia: Submariners feed polar bears with garbage, Barents Observer

United States: Unusual species in Alaska waters indicate parts of Pacific warming dramatically, Alaska Dispatch

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