Alaska holding out against emission-cutting policies

The Arctic is on the front lines of climate change. Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. The most visible impacts are to Native communities located on barrier islands in Northwest Alaska, who now face a future without the ice that used to protect them from storms that now threaten tow wipe them away. A group called Alaska Common Ground hosted an all-day forum in Anchorage over the weekend to answer the question, “What are we doing about it?”

The answer is… not much…. yet.

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Water and sewer systems in communities across Alaska are threatened by flooding and erosion due to climate change. Shown here is the village of Kivalina located on a barrier island in Northwest Alaska that's facing inundation. Joaqlin Estus KNBA
The village of Kivalina is one of several Alaska locales threatened by eroding coastlines and rising sea levels. APRN file photo: Joaqlin Estus KNBA

Studies recommended relocating villages like Newtok, Kivalina and Shishmaref. But more than 10 years later they are still there, with waves getting higher and storms getting stronger. Part of the reason is that emergency programs don’t finance this kind of ongoing situation and erosion.

That’s left people like Mike Black with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium trying to engineer patches to keep communities functioning as the ground turns to jelly or melts out from under them.

One of the solutions is to cool the foundations. That used to be done with a passive systems developed for the pipeline, which enables cold air from the surface to sink down into the ground to keep the permafrost frozen. Now that air is too warm to do the job and engineers are forced to use energy to refrigerate the foundations.

“Refrigeration can work in the summertime extremely well when you’re using solar panels because we have constant sun. So in that way it’s kind of an elegant solution. But the reality is you can only protect some relatively limited spots the rest of the community often times will have to suffer from the melting of that permafrost.”

To cope with heaving ground engineers are also abandoning metal pipes for flexible plastic ones to take water and sewerage away from village homes. Black sees these as stop-gap measures. He and others want to design more mobile structures and systems that will allow small Alaska communities to move as the water rises and ground sinks in the warming Arctic.

The real solution remains to slow the warming by reducing the amount of methane and carbon dioxide going in the air. That’s where taxing carbon comes in making oil and other fossil fuels more expensive to use. Many West Coast governments are working to reduce emissions and have imposed various kinds of carbon taxes. Alaska remains a holdout.

Former Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Bill Ross says Alaska needs to adopt some type of emissions tax because it will be good for the economy as well as the planet. He points to the economic impact of the places that have adopted carbon taxes.

“The number of green jobs are growing twice as fast as regular jobs in those economies. So even though they are moving aggressively to reduce carbon emission their economies are thriving compared to anyone else that is their peers.”

He suggests using the Permanent Fund to pave the transition away from oil. A lot would need to change in the state to make that happen… including Alaskans’ attitudes toward taxes. But even simple things remain undone… like removing regulations that make it hard for state departments to borrow money to make buildings tighter and more energy efficient.

Larry Merkulief with the Alaska Native Science Commission says there is no time to waste. Native elders he works with say there’s no climate change… but a climate crisis. They say everything will warm up much faster than anyone predicts and that people need to act now.

“The elders certainly are unanimous about this in all the regions and I’m talking about not just older people. I’m talking about elders who are tradition bearers and have wisdom recognized by the community.”

To underscore the magnitude of change that needs to be made, Mekulief quoted Albert Einstein, who said you can’t solve the problems that face humanity with the same consciousness that created those problems.

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Johanna Eurich is a contributor for the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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