My Turn: After Paris summit failure, Alaska must act on climate change

  • Monday, December 28, 2015 1:01am
  • Opinion

There is both good news and bad news from the Paris climate change summit that ended earlier this month.

The good news is that the summit produced a global agreement. The bad news is that the agreement fails to prevent or slow dangerous climate change. For Alaska, this means that climate change impacts will go from bad to worse. 

The final Paris agreement fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for decades; there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the voluntary emissions reduction pledges by nations (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions); and there is no agreed fee for carbon emissions. To many involved in the climate issue, Paris was a tragic failure. 

Former NASA climatologist James Hansen, a leader in climate science, told The Guardian about the Paris agreement:

“It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bull**** for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.” 

On this, even Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the deal for the U.S., agreed:

“I understand the criticisms of the agreement because it doesn’t have a mandatory scheme and it doesn’t have a compliance enforcement mechanism. That’s true.”

While Kerry and other negotiators argue that the deal will slowly steer private sector investment away from fossil energy toward low-carbon energy, Hansen and many others fault the agreement for not imposing an across-the-board cost/fee for carbon emissions.

The Paris agreement itself admits that it fails to hold warming to the maximum tolerable of 2°C over pre-industrial levels (we are already at 1°C above), noting:

“… with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre- industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C …”

And: “… that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions do not fall within least-cost 2°C scenarios but rather lead to a projected level of 55 gigatonnes [billion tons] in 2030, and also notes that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels by reducing emissions to 40 gigatonnes or to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by reducing to a level to be identified …”

This is a stark admission that even if the Paris agreement is implemented and complied with fully (which is unlikely), global carbon emissions will continue to increase. While many countries, including the U.S., commit to reduce total emissions, China (the top emitter) doesn’t commit to cap its emissions until 2030, and India (the No. 3 emitter) commits only to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy, not total emissions. Carbon emissions from China and India could double by 2030.

Even with temporary slowing of global emissions growth in some years — such as the 2009 recession, and the 2015 economic slowdown and reduced coal use in China — governments project global CO2 emissions to increase from the current 35 billion tons/year to 55 billion tons/year by 2030 — more than a 50 percent increase. Instead of reducing atmospheric CO2 concentration from the current 400 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm and limiting warming to 2°C, this sets a course for 450 ppm (or higher) and a 3°-4°C increase, which most climate scientists and scientific organizations warn would be disastrous. 

Thus, it is a virtual certainty that climate change will continue to get worse, indeed, much worse. Alaska in 2030 will be much different, and far more challenging due to climate change, than Alaska today.

The Paris agreement calls on non-Party stakeholders ­— private sector, cities and other subnational authorities, (e.g. the state of Alaska) — “… to scale up their efforts and support actions to reduce emissions and/or to build resilience and decrease vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change…”

As one of the most severely affected regions of the world, Alaska needs to do just that. We desperately need a more effective government structure to address the issue, and a separate fund to pay for the many needs of mitigation, adaptation and resilience. This has been proposed for years to the legislature and governor, but has so far been ignored.

Absent significant action by state government, we will simply have to continue telling Alaskans, present and future, that they are on their own to weather this gathering storm. And that is unacceptable. For Alaska’s government to continue to ignore this threat would be a historic mistake. 

The 2010 Alaska Climate Change Strategy, developed by the Palin administration, recommended many actions needed across all sectors of Alaska society and economy, including infrastructure, fisheries and wildlife, wildfire management, energy, freshwater, transportation, agriculture, health and culture. In addition, the Alaska climate strategy notes:

“An array of state, federal, and regional entities are responsible for delivering services to Alaskan villages, rural communities, and urban centers, but specific policies and regulatory constraints produce conflicting directives that prevent the coordinated delivery of vital services that will enable endangered villages, traditional culture, and vulnerable communities to adapt in the face of climate change. There is a need to establish a coordinating entity with the ability to navigate these multiple bureaucracies and to leverage their resources to support vulnerable communities in emergency response, relocation, subsistence concerns, and other priorities.”

However, due to neglect by former Gov. Sean Parnell and the legislature, few of these recommendations have been implemented. We are now years behind the curve of where we need to be on this, and it is time to remedy this.

The proposed Alaska Climate Change Response Act would address many of the issues raised in the 2010 Strategy, and more. The act would revive the dormant Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, and establish a state office on climate change.

And with reduced state budgets, it will be more difficult to pay for the many increasing costs due to climate change across Alaska — erosion control, village relocation, flooding, wildfire response, infrastructure impacts and health effects. The act proposes an Alaska Climate Change Fund, derived from a nominal fee on hydrocarbon production in Alaska (like the state’s oil spill fund) to fund the growing response needs.

We are long past time for simply more talk and working groups alone, and action cannot wait until future sessions. The challenges faced in balancing the state budget this session are real, but the issue of climate change must be addressed as well. It is time the legislature passed an effective Alaska Climate Change Response Act, as proposed.

• Rick Steiner is an independent marine conservation biologist in Anchorage, and was a professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, based in Kotzebue, Cordova and Anchorage.

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