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My Turn: Governor should revive Alaska Climate Change Cabinet

Posted: March 1, 2013 - 1:06am

Before being picked as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Governor Sarah Palin seemed a true believer in climate change. In September 2007, responding to requests for urgent action, Palin established the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet to develop and implement a comprehensive Alaska Climate Change Strategy.

But we’ve just learned that, after Palin resigned in summer 2009 and Sean Parnell (a former ConocoPhillips executive) replaced her as governor, the new governor essentially terminated the Climate Cabinet, without informing the Alaska public. Evidently, Gov. Parnell does not think the risk of climate change in Alaska serious enough to continue the Climate Cabinet, or perhaps he fears it may compromise his “drill-baby-drill” economic plan. Either way, this is spectacularly irresponsible.

In establishing the Climate Cabinet, Palin correctly stated that: “Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans. As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans. Alaska needs a strategy to identify and mitigate potential impacts of climate change and to guide its efforts in evaluating and addressing known or suspected causes of climate change.”

The Cabinet was comprised of the commissioners of environmental conservation, fish & game, commerce, transportation, and natural resources. It appointed working groups on mitigation, adaptation, immediate action, and research, and got off to a great start.

In March 2009, the Immediate Action Work Group called for immediate steps to “identify communities at risk, timeframe, and true needs to address climate change impacts,” and to prioritize “needs based on risks to lives, health, infrastructure, homes, businesses, subsistence harvests, significant cultural attributes, and the quality of life.” The Adaptation Advisory Group produced its Alaska Climate Change Strategy with twenty specific adaptation recommendations for infrastructure, fisheries, wildfires, freshwater, invasive species, wildlife, agriculture, other economic activities, health and culture.

But recent records requests confirm that the Climate Cabinet last met three years ago, in February 2010, and the Immediate Action Working Group disbanded in early 2011.

As a result of the current administration’s disinterest in climate change, detailed planning for at-risk Alaskan communities and ecosystems seems in limbo. It is not clear which, if any, of the many recommendations to the former Climate Cabinet have been implemented. On critical issues ranging from village relocation, coastal erosion, infrastructure, flooding, wildfires, and fisheries, the state has simply abandoned a pro-active posture regarding climate change.

Convening the Climate Cabinet was the singular environmental achievement of Gov. Palin, and although Palin has now gone down the rabbit hole into the delusional world of Tea Party climate change denial (and moved to Arizona, far from the coast), the threat and impacts of climate change in Alaska are even greater than when the Cabinet was first convened. The costs of not taking urgent action would be enormous, even catastrophic. We can’t simply ignore this threat, hoping it will go away — it won’t. Our state government needs to pull its head out of the melting tundra, and respond accordingly. 

Despite the fact that Alaska’s current economy is dependent on producing the very carbon that is accelerating global climate change, future generations of Alaskans deserve urgent action from our current political leadership to mitigate the risks of climate change caused by the global carbon-intensive economy.

Governor Parnell should immediately revive the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, and charge it with getting back to work doing everything possible to mitigate and adapt to this serious threat. This must include not just a robust in-state response, but also Alaska must aggressively join international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions to stabilize climate. And, as we proposed in 2007, Alaska should establish an Alaska Climate Response Fund derived from an oil tax.

History may well judge our current state government above all on how well it protects Alaska’s future from the devastating impacts of climate change. And so far, things aren’t looking good on that front.

• Steiner was a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, and now is an environmental consultant through Oasis Earth, based in Anchorage.

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