Climate task force begins work — and push-back begins, too

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott chaired the inaugural meeting of Gov. Bill Walker’s climate change task force on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. Lisa Busch of the Sitka Sound Science Center is one of 20 people chosen for the commission. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Gov. Bill Walker’s climate task force met for the first time Monday in downtown Anchorage.

The 20-person team, formed by the governor this fall, is supposed to come up with a list of recommendations for how the state should respond to climate change.

But the team is facing questions before it even begins work.

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During the day-long meeting, team members expressed a combination of fear and hope: fear at how fast the natural world is changing, but hope that climate change might turn out to be as much an opportunity as it is a risk.

Isaac Vanderburg, who runs the Anchorage business accelerator Launch Alaska, put it most succinctly.

“Climate change is the one thing that keeps me up at night,” Vanderburg said. But he added, if Alaska can seize the moment, “this is the greatest wealth-creation opportunity the planet has ever seen. I think in Alaska there’s an enormous opportunity here.”

Ralph Andersen, head of the Bristol Bay Native Association, said the issue that’s gotten his attention is erosion.

“We’re seeing way too many of our villages wash into the sea,” Andersen said. “We’re losing schools, power plants. Basic village infrastructure is either being lost or threatened.”

Former state lawmaker and Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule encouraged the group to be realistic in its recommendations. He said promises have been made to Alaska communities in the past, especially on issues like village relocation.

This time, Joule said he’d like a frank discussion of what actions can really be taken and, most crucially, who will pay for them.

“Or whether or not they can be paid for,” Joule said. “At any level. I’ve seen communities that have been hanging out there, thinking that somebody’s going to pay for their move. Are we really?”

Several team members have been here before — ten years ago, when then-Gov. Sarah Palin created a similar climate change task force.

Molly McCammon, of the Alaska Ocean Observing System, was a part of that effort. She said the last decade has only made things more urgent.

“The difference now is the rapidity of the change,” McCammon said. “I think ten years ago, we thought there was going to be more time to prepare and respond to things. Now, we are really facing some really immediate changes, and it’s just happening so much faster. We need to be able to act faster.”

One big question is whether the team will be able to build support for whatever recommendations they come up with — not least from state lawmakers.

In an indication of how hard that might be, Nikiski Republican Rep. Mike Chenault issued a blistering press release Tuesday complaining that the task force doesn’t include enough representation from business leaders and the resource industries. He said that leaves the team with an “obvious left-leaning foundation.”

The task force includes just one representative from the oil and gas industry — BP Alaska President Janet Weiss — and none from mining or timber.

It does include two representatives from commercial fishing, along with current and former local and tribal officials, representatives from the University of Alaska and other research organizations, several members with experience in renewable energy and one from an environmental group.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who is chairing the task force, defended its make-up. He noted that the Walker administration has also taken heat from environmentalists for not moving fast enough, and said the task force would engage the oil industry in “virtually every aspect of our work.”

“The broadest range of voices, of Alaskans being involved and heard is, we believe, crucial to this effort,” Mallott said.

Team members will split into working groups to come up with potential recommendations in four areas: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to environmental changes, research and immediate actions.

The task force will meet in person just one more time before it must deliver formal proposals to the governor in September 2018.