An age-old trick in government is that if you want to avoid or delay a politically difficult decision, simply appoint a committee to study the issue. Feign concern, buy time, do nothing. This is precisely what Gov. Bill Walker is now doing with climate change.
Walker’s recent administrative order establishing an “Alaska Climate Change Strategy” (which was initiated 10 years ago by Gov. Sarah Palin, but entirely ignored by Parnell and Walker), and a “Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team” may seem like progress. It isn’t.
For years it has been clear exactly what needs to be done to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change in Alaska — mitigate globally, adapt locally. Most importantly, global carbon emissions need to be reduced by 80 percent, and fast. It is in Alaska’s enlightened self-interest to aggressively advocate all policies nationally and globally that advance this goal, including the implementation of EPA’s Clean Power Plan — the centerpiece of the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement, now scuttled by the Trump administration.
And Alaska needs to do its part on this, by beginning to leave some of our hydrocarbons in the ground. So far, Alaska has contributed over 8 billion tons of CO2 to the global atmosphere through the export of over 17 billion barrels of oil. We own part of the current global climate chaos (and liability).
A noted civil rights leader once said: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Alaska is clearly part of the global climate problem, and needs to become part of the global climate solution.
In addition, Alaska must adapt to climate change in-state as much as possible. There are real and costly climate adaptation needs today across the state — village relocation, erosion control, storm and wildfire response, fishery failures, infrastructure impacts, etc. — and these costs will rise. One scientific study estimates that climate change costs to infrastructure alone in Alaska will amount to $7.3 billion to $14.5 billion by 2080. We cannot continue to ignore such costs, or simply depend on the feds to bail us out. Alaska needs a dedicated and substantial climate adaptation fund derived from a tax ($0.20 per barrel equivalent) on all hydrocarbon production in state, generating about $40 million per year to address these needs.
Alaskans have urged Walker (as well as the legislature and congressional delegation) to act decisively on this issue throughout his entire term in office. But he has done absolutely nothing on this, that is, until now that his campaign for reelection has begun. Most Alaskans are not fooled by such political trickery.
Clearly, Walker’s recent climate change order is a simple political expedient by which the administration can pretend to be responsive to the threat, deflect criticism of its tragic inaction until after the election, and continue doing nothing. Amazingly, Walker has already invoked his announced establishment of the climate committee to argue for drilling in the Arctic Refuge.
No amount of clever electioneering will conceal Walker’s historic inattention to climate change. None. Had he genuinely wanted to take significant action on climate change, he would have and should have done so years ago. He could do so today. But he hasn’t, and likely won’t.
Another political trick in appointing committees is to load the group with those opposed to any action, rendering any consensus impossible or impotent. We can expect Walker’s climate committee to be “balanced” with the very interests that have delayed any climate action in Alaska for years. This is precisely why the legislature’s climate commission (2006-2008) was such a failure.
Whatever the climate committee recommends, it would be up to the next administration to implement. And we know from experience that, if it is another Walker/Mallott term, nothing substantive will be done on this issue.
As Alaska slips deeper into climate chaos in the coming years, history will rightfully place Bill Walker and Byron Mallott on the long list of today’s politicians whose inattention to this grave threat foreclosed our sustainable future.
• Rick Steiner is a conservation biologist, and was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010. He resides in Anchorage. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.