“Americans love a challenge. This is our moonshot.” The “can do” bulleted headline from the overview of the Green New Deal is reminiscent of how Edward Teller appealed to Alaskans when trying to sell plans to create a deep-water harbor in the Arctic 60 years ago. The two stories diverge on the question of trusting scientists and offer a warning against the shrinking marketplace of ideas in Alaska’s budget debate.
The budget first. “This has been an ongoing issue for years,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said after revealing unveiling it in February. “Everyone in this state knows this issue needs to be solved. It’s not going to be easy. That’s why it’s been kicked down the road — the can has been kicked down the road for some time.”
Those statements were true until Bill Walker moved into the Governor’s Mansion in 2014. Faced with a $3.5 billion budget deficit, he suspended six high-cost infrastructure projects and cut discretionary spending by $1.7 billion. A year later, he rolled out the “New Sustainable Alaska Plan” that combined more spending cuts with revenue from the earnings portion of the Permanent Fund, a capped PFD and new taxes.
“There is no perfect plan,” Walker said at the time. He guaranteed “everyone in Alaska will have something in this plan they don’t particularly care for.”
Dunleavy liked none of it. While Alaskans debated the hard choices the next three years, he argued the spending cuts weren’t deep enough and emphatically rejected every revenue idea Walker proposed.
Now that he’s facing opposition to his own budget, Dunleavy says he’s “ready and waiting” for legislators “to put forth their ideas.” But asking them for “a little broader discussion” implies he’s only open to minor course corrections.
Teller was similarly inflexible six decades ago. The “father of the hydrogen bomb” and director of the federal Lawrence Radiation Laboratory wanted to prove nuclear explosions could be used for peaceful purposes. Project Chariot would demonstrate that. The plan was to build a harbor 26 miles south of Point Hope by blasting an 18 million square foot crater at Cape Thompson.
According to Dan O’Neill, author The Firecracker Boys, Cape Thompson had been selected based on a study that focused on a 50-mile stretch of coastal land. And before visiting Alaska, Teller formerly asked the Department of Interior to set the area aside for the project and sent field crews there to determine possible locations to place the nuclear bombs.
None of that information was shared with the Alaska officials and business leaders Teller met in 1958. When some questioned the value of building a deep-water port that far north, he implied his agency would consider other sites throughout the state. And he appealed to their frontier spirit by telling them Alaska been chosen because it had “big people” and “the most reasonable people.”
It worked. An editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner wrote “the high echelon of nuclear scientists” had “flattered Alaskans.” Chambers of Commerce across the state adopted resolutions supporting the project. It didn’t matter that neither an analysis of alternatives nor an economic feasibility study had been performed. Or that consequences from radioactive fallout wasn’t studied. Officials were eager to trust whatever was recommended by the small group of nuclear scientists.
Fortunately, less prominent Alaskans helped kill the poorly conceived project.
The climate change story goes the other way. The scientists from around the world who study it have had their work peer reviewed to a level that puts Teller and his gang to shame. Despite that, their conclusions are disputed by politicians and business leaders across the country.
The Green New Deal sponsored by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, hasn’t fared any better. The nonbinding resolution isn’t a prescriptive plan though. Putting its unrelated social issues aside, the proposal defines ambitious policy goals intended to help Americans stop kicking the climate change problem down the road.
“What I hope we’re able to do,” Ocasio-Cortez explained after it was released, “is rediscover the power of public imagination.”
From a fiscal perspective, that’s what Walker asked of Alaskans while he was in office. Dunleavy though seems so committed to balancing the budget with spending cuts alone that the consequences of blowing a hole in state government is secondary to proving it can be done.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a weekly “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire.