Climate urgency in Alaska is real — as it is elsewhere. And we Alaskans must be realistic about the challenges of climate change here. It falls to our generation, the climate generation, to step up. The Glasgow global climate conference, where 200 countries submitted their plans to cut greenhouse emissions by 2030, concluded on Nov. 13. Now is a good time to look at climate change in Alaska.
We don’t yet know the full state of modern climate change or how best to address it — this discussion provides merely a limited Alaska-snapshot of some aspects of this complex issue. But we know enough to get started.
In 2015, 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, an international climate change treaty, and the forerunner of the Glasgow conference. These countries agreed on a target of limiting global warming to an increase of 20C, and preferably 1.50C, compared to pre-industrial levels. The goal is to use the best available science to reduce the amount global greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane emissions, in the earth’s atmosphere.
Leading environmental scientists say that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet and that Alaska is on the front lines of climate change. Indeed, Alaska is warming faster than any other state. Beginning in the 1990s, high temperature records began occurring three times as frequently as record low temperatures. In the next 30 years, Alaskan average annual temperatures are projected to increase another 2 to 4 degrees.
This warming trend is causing intensified flooding, sea level rise, warming oceans, less and thinner sea ice, coastal erosion and thawing permafrost. These incidents harm villages (about 45 villages may be threatened by some combination of these types of events), cities, businesses, personal homes, infrastructure and subsistence hunting. No significant part of Alaska is left untouched.
Permafrost underlies about 85% of Alaska. In the past few decades, permafrost has warmed as much as 3.5 degrees, and Alaska’s permafrost is now essentially melting under our feet. We know the problem, we’ve all driven on wavy Alaska roads with bumps and dips caused by thawing permafrost.
On a bigger scale, oil businesses and commercial fishing, central parts of Alaska’s economy, and other areas, are suffering critical harm. One iconic example is the trans-Alaska pipeline, operated by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The braces holding up the pipeline are sinking into thawing permafrost. Intensified flooding is affecting critical adjacent rivers. These events threaten to destabilize or washout the pipeline. Commendably, Alyeska is quickly installing ground chillers and building flood control walls. But these measures are merely band aids on a progressively worsening situation. Refreezing Alaskan permafrost is ironically a telling metaphor of Alaska climate urgency.
Commercial fishing is another iconic example. Warming trends in the southern Bering Sea appear to be pushing cod, pollack and crab hundreds of miles north to the colder waters of the northern Bering Sea. Fishing boats now have to go dramatically farther, and spend many more days at sea, to chase the fish.
Additionally, decreasing shore-ice is reducing protection from bigger storm waves that damage homes and buildings in numerous Alaska Native villages, forcing some villages to relocate altogether. Further, in July 2019, warming oceans pushed warm water into river fisheries, killing salmon before they could spawn in the Kuskokwim and Unalakleet rivers.
Governmental leaders need to deal with this. As an old-school Republican, I agree with the Conservative Climate Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, that “the climate is changing, and a global industrial era that has brought prosperity to the world has also contributed to that change.” Like the Conservative Caucus, I prefer answers based on innovation and a free-market strategy, but recognize that we may need a multipronged approach. We don’t need to kill the economy. I believe that we can generate solutions that are fair for all Alaskans and all sectors of our economy.
We need a representative in Congress who will prioritize climate change and explore creative decarbonization strategies involving innovative technology, responsible financial practices, and carbon markets. Additional possible strategies are solar, hydro and wind energy. I have lived and worked in the Aleutians and Pribilofs and Bristol Bay — I know about Alaska wind!
We are “confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” These climate change challenges can seem overwhelming. Nevertheless, we are determined Alaskans and this is the Last Frontier. Alaska Natives have been here over 10,000 years and all of us have endured numerous hardships over the years. We also have our noble youth, who see climate change not as a political issue but as a moral imperative, to energize and inspire us. There is every reason to be hopeful.
We are one state and one people. Let’s go higher! We can work together to fight this. It falls to our generation to make a climate-urgency difference. If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?