At the urging of hundreds of residents, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly recently passed a resolution that residents ought to be aware of. Dozens testified in favor. They spoke of an increasing cycle of highway damage, flooding, pests, smoky summers, and icy roads. They called for coordination and preparation. Afterward, the assembly debated. All but one member agreed borough staff should work with the local Alaska Center for Climate Assessment to help residents develop a community-driven climate action plan.
That night I listened to more than 50 testimonies. I jotted down comments from the three in opposition. What I heard from them wasn’t unreasonable. I heard resistance to regulations designed by government officials. The resolution acknowledges this concern, wisely calling for a diverse group of citizens to review facts, analyze options and risks, and develop recommendations to prepare for, and mitigate, climate change. Suggestions would serve as a menu for individuals, businesses, nonprofits, tribes, and local or state government.
“Things aren’t like they used to be,” said another testifier. He’s right. Alaska has warmed on average about 4 degrees Fahrenheit over about the last century. July was the hottest month on record. Around the Interior we have more wildfires in some years and extreme rainfall in others — this summer we’ve experienced both. These trends aren’t surprising. They’ve been predicted by the women and men who study the Earth’s climate system.
The basic understanding of the greenhouse effect goes back to the 1800s and has matured rapidly over the past few decades.
This year, scientists using three independent long-term global temperature datasets announced the mathematical certainty that humans warming the planet had reached the gold standard. With such confidence, it’s not surprising nearly 100% of publishing climate scientists — not economists, lawyers or politicians — agree humans are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in.
Others testified about financial impacts. It’s clear we can’t afford not to change. Billion-dollar disasters are happening much more frequently. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in June that in 2018 14 weather and climate-related disaster events cost at least $91 billion. GAO has warned Congress about the fiscal dangers of climate change for a decade. Every recent U.S. president, beginning with Kennedy, was warned too. In Alaska, impacts are costing us millions each year. By the end of the century, infrastructure damages alone are expected to total several billion.
Some testifiers at the assembly meeting spoke of solutions. During World War II, millions pulled together for the common good. They planted victory gardens. They paid higher taxes. When the Soviet Union’s space accomplishments threatened, Americans spent billions to place a man gently onto the moon. We’ve done amazing things when challenged. We’ve adapted rapidly when necessary and can do so again.
And in Alaska we’ve made a start. Over 100 businesses working in the renewable energy industry displaced the equivalent of more than 30 million gallons of diesel in 2018. Electric vehicle sales rose 82% between 2017 and 2018. Homes, businesses and municipal buildings with renewable energy systems are increasing. The percentage of Golden Valley Electric Association power generation from renewable energy is rising. Energy efficiency actions on borough facilities are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing taxpayers an anticipated $2.2 million in net lifetime savings. Weatherization efforts between 2008 and 2011 helped individual homeowners in North Pole reduce energy consumption saving an average $2,500 per year. Research and experience shows that opportunities for financial savings abound.
Climate change is wreaking havoc on Alaska and us. What will it cost future generations if we fail to come together and think ahead? How much can we save them with a smart, community-driven plan? I thank all assembly members, especially Marna Sanford and Leah Berman Williams, for being courageous, respectful and responsive. They’re giving us a chance to close the gap between our aspirations and the unfolding reality. Let’s do it.
Jimmy Fox is a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Sustainability Commission.