Walker announces ‘climate team’ days after teens sue

Gov. Bill Walker billed a press conference Tuesday morning as the rollout of his strategy to address climate change.

When the announcement came, it was less of a strategy and more of an announcement that he’s drafting a panel to create one.

On Tuesday, Walker signed an executive order creating a 20-person “Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team” charged with drafting recommendations by September 2018. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will chair the team, whose members will be selected from among Alaskans who apply.

The application window will be two weeks long, Mallott said, and close Nov. 14.

“Climate change is not going to be set aside as a result of our fiscal situation, so we’re moving forward with this,” Walker said, adding that Alaska is “on the front lines of climate change.”

He said the panel will help Alaska accomplish the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, even if the method it uses to accomplish those goals is different.

Tuesday’s announcement comes four days after a group of Alaska teens sued the state for failing to have a strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, a lead contributor to global climate change.

An administration official said the announcement had been in the works for several months, and the state had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Tuesday’s announcement appears to have limited effect. The governor is not bound to follow the recommendations of the climate panel, the panel has not been granted any authority by the Legislature, and because it was established by executive order, it may be dismissed at any time by Walker or anyone elected in his place.

The September deadline for its recommendations is two months before the statewide general election and one month after the state’s primary election.

Walker identified climate change as an issue when he ran for governor in 2014, and one section of his transition team was tasked with making recommendations to address climate change.

Despite that, Walker hasn’t taken any significant actions on the topic, and his official state website contains few mentions of the topic.

“It just took a little more time than we wanted to,” he said in response to a question about why he established the panel now, rather than earlier in his term.

Previous governors have taken similar steps to draft climate-change recommendations. Gov. Sarah Palin created a climate change subcabinet to tackle the topic (Gov. Sean Parnell dissolved it) and both Palin and Parnell supported construction of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project as part of a plan to reduce Alaska’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

Walker stopped state funding for that project after oil prices plunged and stayed low.

His budgets have also eliminated grant funding for the Alaska Energy Authority’s fund for renewable energy projects.

Reactions to the governor’s announcement were mixed. The Ocean Conservancy, in a prepared statement, thanked Walker for “a measured, carefully considered action that can help lay the foundation for a sustainable future for our state.”

Sebastien Kurland, an 18-year-old from Juneau who is among those filing the lawsuit against the state, was less kind.

“I was confused after listening to Governor Walker’s press conference this morning. He is just redeclaring the subcommittee Palin started with no new plan of action. This order is out of touch and not do anything to protect my future or those of my fellow Alaskans,” Kurland said in a prepared statement.

Walker’s panel will include the commissioners of commerce, environmental conservation and natural resources, as well as representatives from the University of Alaska and the Alaska Energy Authority. There are 15 public members representing a variety of interests including resource development, transportation, education, Alaska Native corporations and tribal governments.

Given the state’s fiscal situation, it’s unclear how the panel’s eventual recommendations will be implemented.

Walker suggested the state might use federal funds or find ways to use existing funds more efficiently.

“I’ll certainly admit: It is a challenge,” he said.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.