Gov. Sean Parnell’s decision to not accept the expansion of Medicaid leaves approximately 40,000 Alaskans without a path to health insurance. Noting the compensation provided by the federal government and the need to reign in health care premiums, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce even sees the pragmatic value of including Alaska in the program. In citing his reason for not including Alaska, Gov. Parnell noted “we Alaskans need to take care of our own.” Yet, he proposes no plan to do this, instead choosing to leave thousands of Alaskans behind.
Now, with his recent decision to not participate in the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, and his lack of an alternative plan regarding Medicaid expansion, Gov. Parnell is once again choosing to leave Alaskans behind in addressing the problems of our time. Only this time the entire state is affected, including future generations.
Currently, there are 12 villages in need of relocation due to erosion and storm threats from climate change. The Alaska Legislature has appropriated $12 million to assist these villages. According to Patricia Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, “almost all of our communities will at some point or at some period of time experience some problems associated with climate change. We are the first populations that are really seeing the immense changes that are occurring.”
The impact of Alaska heating up at twice the rate as the Lower 48 also affects Alaskans living in and near our boreal forests. The Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (part of University of Alaska) notes, “The forests that cover one-third of Alaska are burning more widely and frequently.” According to their assessment, “The area burned in Alaska was twice as large in the past decade (2000-2009) than any decade in the previous 40 years (1960-1999); 6.6 million acres burned in the peak year of 2004. Models predict that the area burned per decade will double again by the middle of the century.”
Perhaps most disturbing about the impact of climate change is the twin problem of ocean acidification (OA). As the world’s oceans absorb more carbon they become more acidic; reducing the carbonate ion essential for growing protective shells. This affects everything from King Crab to the planktonic calcifiers that form the basis of the ocean’s food web. According to the Alaska Oceans Observing System, an interagency and oceans stakeholder group, “if the plankton calcifiers can’t survive, creatures that feed on them can’t survive either. Ultimately, OA is a major threat to Alaska’s economically vital, world-class commercial fisheries.”
While the list of potential impacts could go on, the bottom line is that Alaska is exceptionally vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. From the eroding villages to the melting permafrost, from the wildfires of the Interior to Alaska’s commercial fishing industry, climate change imposes immediate challenges for all of Alaska. Yet, with the exception of capitalizing on the many economic opportunities promised by an ice-free Arctic, Alaska’s leaders remain unengaged in the issue of climate change.
Participating in the Pacific Coast Action Plan alongside our neighbor, British Columbia, is the latest missed opportunity to address this challenge in a way that would have boosted Alaska’s clean energy economy. On Oct. 30, government leaders from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California signed on to a strategy to account for the cost of carbon, implement low-carbon fuel standards, and to embrace clean energy. According to Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee, “This Action Plan represents the best of what Pacific Coast governments are already doing, and calls on each of us to do more — together — to create jobs by leading in the clean energy economy and to meet our moral obligation to future generations.”
It is important to note that this accord on climate and energy was well received by business leaders, according to an Oct. 31 report of the Examiner. Steve Clem, vice president of Skanska USA, one of the largest construction companies in the U.S., notes, “in this time of political grandstanding and gridlock, private enterprises like ours that are trying to do the right thing are pleased by the recognition here that it really is possible to grow the economy, create jobs and still do our part as a region to fight climate change.”
The motivation behind the actions of our neighboring states and governments is a full acceptance of the realities of climate change, combined with a moral obligation to future generations.
“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last generation who can do something about it,” Gov. Inslee said.
As exemplified by our neighbor British Columbia, we can find ways to grow the economy while reducing emissions. Being an oil state does not excuse us from our moral obligation to address the realities of climate change. On the contrary, being an oil state should obligate us more. Even Mexico, an oil dependent region, has a plan to reduce emissions and build resiliency, making Alaska the only coastal region in North America without a climate action plan.
As noted in recent editorials on Medicaid, Gov. Parnell’s ideology appears to trump pragmatic concerns in making his decision to leave Alaska out of the Affordable Health Care Act. One can only surmise that the same principle is at play again in his decision not to participate in the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy.
• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.