My Turn: The irony of exploiting climate change in Alaska

This past weekend at the Juneau World Affairs Council’s Politics of Climate Change forum, Juneau learned the definition of irony. During the three-day forum, natural scientists, social scientists, legal experts, and U.S. military representatives outlined climate change and how it will impact humans in coming decades. Then, to wrap up the conference, state officials detailed the exciting ways in which Alaska can exploit climate change.

This wasn’t a forum on saving polar bears; this was a forum to address the very real impacts that humans will endure as a result of climate change. According to the majority of the speakers, food and water insecurity, loss of coastal areas, mass emigrations, spread of infectious disease, and growing conflicts over scarce resources will be social and political realities in the not-so-distant future. Many of these problems will be the most severe in the southern hemisphere, but Europe and North America will not be immune. The U.S. will feel additional pressure with significant increases in both legal and illegal immigrations which will likely create conflicts at home as we struggle with increasingly scarce resources such as water, fish and fertile agricultural land.

Let me emphasize something here: Not only does the United States military acknowledge the reality of climate change, but it is taking the threat of that reality so seriously that it is developing defense strategies and infrastructure to address its impacts. To put it as bluntly as Dr. Leo Goff, program manager for a prominent military research organization’s advisory board did: we need to acknowledge the realities we’re facing and pull our heads out of the sand. This isn’t about saving the owls. It’s about saving people.

The purpose of this forum was to discuss the politics of climate change or, in other words, to discuss the social and economic impacts of a century’s worth of fossil fuel combustion. Quite frankly, it was alarming when at the culmination of the forum, Lt. Gov. Treadwell, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Dr. Lawson Brigham and investor Alice Rogoff shared the exciting economic news about climate change. To summarize their points: climate change is a fantastic opportunity for Alaska.

With receding Arctic sea ice and the increasing navigability of the Arctic Ocean, conditions on Coastal Arctic Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf will be more favorable for what? You guessed it: oil, natural gas, and coal extraction. I understand and respect the needs of energy security, and I understand that we can’t transition away from fossil fuels overnight. However, when the state outlines its 40-year plans to exploit the imminent crisis of climate change to dig and drill for more fossil fuels, I get nauseous. Either the irony of the situation entirely evades our state’s decision-makers, or they’re fully aware of the irony and just don’t care.

I however, care very much. I’m in my early 20s, and I am inheriting a world that will face food, water, and border security problems about which we now can only speculate. This forum outlined a future of social and political unrest, and to see state officials celebrating the opportunity to dig ourselves further into this mess is disheartening. As a concerned resident of the state of Alaska, I ask that our decision-makers acknowledge that continued fossil fuel combustion will exacerbate impacts on future generations, and take this into consideration before playing economic chess with our natural resources.

• Sebastian of Juneau is a current exchange student at UAS and will graduate from Wellesley College in 2013. She is a lifetime resident of Alaska.

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