My Turn: Alaska and its Paris climate connection

  • By Kate Troll
  • Sunday, December 20, 2015 1:02am
  • Opinion

Whether you approve of President Barack Obama’s overall job performance or not, Obama is getting international kudos for the way he delivered on the recently negotiated Paris climate agreement. As ABC News reported on Dec. 14, “Getting nearly 200 countries to sign a carbon-cutting pact seemed a remote possibility just a few years ago, and the agreement reached in Paris marks one of Obama’s most significant diplomatic achievements.”

In September when President Obama chose Alaska and the GLACIER conference in Anchorage to launch his push toward success in Paris, he charged up the world for the Paris negotiations: “If we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between 6 and 12 degrees by the end of the century, triggering more melting, more fires, more thawing of permafrost, a negative feedback loop, a cycle — warming leading to more warming — that we do not want to be a part of. And the fact is that climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. That must change.” The 55 percent of Alaskans (2014 poll by Yale Project on Climate Change) who worry “global warning will harm future generations,” should be proud of the role that Alaska played in the historic Paris agreement.

The last time the world came together to craft a climate deal was in Copenhagen in 2009 and those negotiations, focused on splitting the world into separate roles for developing and fully developed countries, ended by all accounts in a diplomatic train wreck. Working hard to make the outcome different this time, Obama engaged in several years of talks on a climate agreement with China ahead of the UN talks. According to Jeff Goodell, the Rolling Stone reporter that covered Obama’s trip to Alaska, this agreement with China helped to “put everyone in the same boat and ultimately the Paris agreement underscores the essential truth that we have one atmosphere, and if we screw it up everyone suffers.”

Although the critics of the Paris agreement point out that the emission reduction pledges made by the 196 countries are not legally binding or sufficient enough to keep the world below the 2 degree Celsius goal, the agreement makes the reporting of emissions legally binding, establishes transparency and creates a strong global recognition that countries must to do more to fast track emission reductions. But to economists and business leaders close to the negotiations, the Paris agreement is transformative. World renowned British economist, Nicolas Lord Stern notes, “The Paris agreement is a turning point in the world’s fight against unmanaged climate change which threatens prosperity. It creates enormous economic opportunities as countries begin to accelerate along the path towards low-carbon economic growth.”

Even the conservative magazine The Economist praises the climate deal by noting, “Perhaps the most significant effect of the Paris agreement in the next few years will be the signal it sends to investors: the united governments of the world say that the age of fossil fuels has started drawing to a close.” Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever (one of the world’s largest food distributors) concurs with this sentiment. “The consequences of this agreement go far beyond the actions of governments. They will be felt in banks, stock exchanges, boardrooms, and research centers as the world absorbs the fact that it is embarking on an unprecedented project to decarbonize the global economy.”

If the world is now officially shifting toward a path of accelerated investments in renewable energy and new carbon markets to enable regions to trade emissions and protect forests, what does this mean for a state that is banking its future on a natural gas pipeline? Is there a role for our natural gas in being a bridge fuel for Asian countries needing to get off coal fired electrical generation?

These are important questions that only gets answered if Alaska choose to engage in the issue of climate change head on. Alaska is the only region on the West Coast of North America that does not have a climate action plan. Alaska continues to view climate change only through the lens of Arctic policy, a policy that fails to even mention the words “climate change” in its four guiding principles.

If we started playing in the climate change world as more than just the poster state for impacts, we would begin to see the other side of the glass that economist Lord Stern speaks of, we would begin to see that our off-grid hybrid systems and our wealth of renewable energy resources actually position us to lead in the clean energy economy. If we set out to be this leader in the clean energy economy, we could with credibility market our conventional natural gas as cleaner than gas from fracking; as a better bridge fuel.

The president’s visit to Alaska reminded us that climate change is so much bigger than Arctic policy. Yet, the president came and left without a single announcement from the Walker-Mallott Administration on engaging in climate change. Now, after the Paris agreement, we know that dealing with climate change is about the transformation of our economy and in this context Alaska must examine its role and how we position Alaska’s natural gas in the new low-carbon world.

It’s past time that Alaska become part of the solution. We have everything to gain by doing so and so much at risk by staying on the sidelines.

• Kate Troll is a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member and was appointed by former Gov. Sarah Palin to her Mitigation Advisory Group on Climate Change. The views represented are her own.

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