Alaska Governor Issues Order on Climate Change Strategy

Aerial Mt. Muir with Baker Glacier, Harriman Fiord, Prince William Sound, Chugach National Forest, Alaska (Source: USDA Forest Service Alaska Region/Flickr).

Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. On average, during the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit overall and 6 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Alaska Governor Bill Walker has issued an order on climate change strategy with the intention to create “a flexible and long-lasting framework for Alaskans to build a strategic response to climate change,” according to the Office of the Governor. As a key part of the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, Walker has appointed members of a climate action leadership team that will design the strategy and work to investigate ways to reduce the impacts of climate change.

The Alaska Climate Change Strategy is not the first climate-focused policy effort by the state. Nikoosh Carlo, the governor’s senior advisor for climate policy, told GlacierHub that “The Strategy and Leadership Team builds on previous initiatives from former governors and the legislature, as well as the wealth of Arctic research conducted through the University of Alaska.” One such effort, for example, was the Climate Change Sub-Cabinet created by former Governor Sarah Palin’s Administrative Order 238 in 2007. The Sub-Cabinet was composed of two advisory groups for adaptation and mitigation as well as two working groups for immediate action and research needs. Each group prepared extensive reports with climate policy recommendations in each of the four areas.

Order to Support the Paris Climate Agreement

The new order supports the Paris Climate Agreement in light of U.S. actions to withdraw from the agreement. It also aims to reduce Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions and encourages international collaboration, emphasizing the need to assure a competitive economy in Alaska. The order states that “the State may also engage with national and international partners to seek collaborative solutions to climate change that support the goals of the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #13, ‘Climate Action,’ while also pursuing new opportunities to keep Alaska’s economy competitive in the transition to a sustainable future.”

Alaska Governor Bill Walker and his wife, Donna, along with Toyko Gas’ Mr and Mrs Hirosa visit Mendenhall Glacier in 2017 (Source: Office of the Governor/Flickr).

Although the governor’s actions sound positive, it’s important to note that they are taking place in a state that favors expansion of fossil fuel extraction at odds with environmental groups. For example, Walker himself has promoted Chinese investment in Alaska’s liquified natural gas pipeline to support additional gas extraction and export to Asia. This gas pipeline project agreement was signed by Governor Walker during President Trump’s trade mission to China last November. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski also worked hard to have the U.S. government allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area where drilling had not been permitted. She has personally expressed ambivalence about the Paris Agreement. For his part, Governor Walker changed party affiliation recently for the upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election, in which he plans to run unaffiliated. Walker has been a longtime Republican, but also ran for office as an Independent. His Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott has been a longtime Democrat. Regarding their decisions to run unaffiliated in 2018, the two said in a statement, “We believe that independent leadership that relentlessly puts Alaska’s priorities first is critical to finishing the work we have started to stabilize and build Alaska.”

Climate Action Leadership Team

In a statement in December, the Alaskan government announced the creation of a climate action leadership team to provide Governor Bill Walker and his cabinet with guidance on climate change issues. The team has a specific task and will be part of the overall climate change strategy to develop a recommended plan of action. On December 12, 2017, Governor Walker appointed 15 members to the team which will focus on mitigation, adaptation, research and response for Alaska. The team members are directly involved in Alaska’s collective response to climate change and have professional backgrounds in science, industry and entrepreneurship, community wellbeing and planning, natural resources, environmental advocacy and policy making. As described by the Office of the Governor, “The expertise of leadership team members includes renewable energy and energy efficiency, coastal resilience, indigenous knowledge and culture, science communication, technological innovation, and transportation systems.”

Alaska’s Northstar Island in the Beaufort Sea, built of gravel six miles off the Alaska coastline, in operation since 2001 (Source:Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement BSEE/Flickr).

Governor Walker has expressed the importance of naming the team as a critical step in advancing meaningful climate policy. “I am proud to present a motivated group of leaders, each of whom brings a range of expertise and interests to the table. Our team members not only represent a breadth of experience across the state from the North Slope to the Southeast, but also have strong networks and resources spanning from Alaska to the rest of the world, giving us a voice in the global dialogue on climate change,” he said in his statement.

Shrinking Glaciers Prompt Action

Glaciers in Alaska have lost about 75 billion tons of ice annually since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientific American puts this amount into perspective as they compare it to “the amount of water needed to fill Yankee Stadium 150,000 times each year.” And as a warmer climate melts ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, the sea level is also rising at an increasing rate. Overall, a warmer climate in Alaska has caused retreat of Arctic sea ice, shore erosion, shrinking glaciers, and permafrost and forest fires, with these impacts only likely to accelerate in the coming decades.

Glaciers in southeast Alaska, in the Alaska Range (a 400 miles long mountain range in the southcentral region of Alaska), and along the south central coast, for example, have retreated drastically during the last century. The Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, retreated over 31 miles since the late 19th century, when it was recorded for the first time.

Retreating glacier in Alaska, aerial view (Source: C Watts/Flickr).

President Barack Obama visited Alaska back in 2015 to illustrate the environmental impacts caused by climate change. The Guardian notes that the Trump administration has “moved to dismantle climate adaptation programs” like the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. In November 2016, it was tasked with safeguarding towns and villages at risk from rising sea levels.

According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, 31 Alaskan communities have been identified to be at high risk due to impacts of rising temperatures. As stated in a report from 2009, “While the flooding and erosion threats to Alaska Native villages have not been completely assessed, since 2003, federal, state, and village officials have identified 31 villages that face imminent threats.”

Nikoosh Carlo explained to GlacierHub that responses to new state policies or initiatives tend to vary according to whether and to what degree a constituent or group believes that the action represents their interests. In this case, it is undeniable that the state of Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the United States. Quick actions are needed to protect Alaska’s communities and resources.

“The majority of Alaskans are ready to consider climate change impacts, to address immediate actions at the community level, to mobilize research, and strategic action with the State to work toward the energy transition necessary for our vision of a sustainable future,” Carlo told GlacierHub.

A poll from 2017 by the Nature Conservancy asked Alaskan voters what was on the top of their minds with regard to climate change. In this poll 68 percent of Alaskans said that the effects from climate change have already begun, 86 percent said that they support policies that encourage energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy in Alaska, and nearly 80 percent of Alaskans are concerned about climate change impacts on commercial fisheries.

Alaska’s Transition to a Renewable Future

The trans-Alaska pipeline crosses the Dalton Highway near Milepost 159, between the South Fork Koyukuk River and Chapman Lake, Alaska (Source: Craig McCaa, BLM Alaska/Flickr).

The order states, “To assure Alaska’s continued growth and resilience despite climate challenges requires communities statewide to work together as they have throughout Alaska’s history to pioneer solutions to our most difficult problems.”

Governor Walker further notes how these solutions require the creation of a vision for Alaska’s future that both incorporates necessary long-term climate goals and recognizes the need for non-renewable resources (to meet current economic and energy requirements) during a phase of transmission toward a future based on renewable energy.

An overnight energy transition is not possible. Alaska needs to transition toward a renewable energy-based future. Carlo told GlacierHub that “Alaska’s role as an energy producer and our obligation to protect current and future generations from the impacts of climate change are not mutually exclusive.” The continued development of resources in Alaska is necessary for survival and provision for Alaskans. Carlo further explained that many Alaskans pay the highest energy costs in the nation, while at the same time the state continues to work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing use of renewables and more energy efficient systems.

“Alaska will need to analyze difficult questions such as the timing, scale, impacts, benefits and risk as we discuss the pathways we might pursue while we diversify the economy and drive a shift to a renewable energy-based future,” Carlo added.

The Alaska Climate Change Strategy establishes a framework for the prioritization of climate actions, based on short-term and long-term goals. “Alaska has a role both in meeting the energy needs of the world even as we work to do our part to produce and use cleaner energy,” Carlo told GlacierHub. “I believe that sustainability rests on our ability to reduce carbon emissions and to correct for climate change. Our children and children’s children should not inherit a world that we haven’t made our best attempt at ensuring its long-term health.”

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