Local Climate Action Persists in Alaska

Temperatures in Alaska have been rising twice as fast as the global average and two to three times the rate of any other U.S. state. However, the state’s economic reliance on oil and gas, compounded with the fact that both chambers of its legislature are now under Republican majorities, have made it difficult for Alaska to take leadership on climate action.

Alaska’s economy is largely based on oil and gas production, fishing, federal and state expenditures (such as military bases), research, and tourism. In fact, despite becoming a state in 1959, almost 60 percent of the state’s total area is under the supervision of various federal agencies, including national parts, national forests, and wildlife refuges. Alaska’s subsistence economy largely revolves around hunting, especially for native communities, and commercial fishing is also huge, the port of Kodiak is one of the largest fishing ports in the United States

The state is known for its oil fields, and revenue from oil and gas funds most of the state government; moreover, because of harsh winters, the state’s per capita energy consumption is the fourth highest in the country. At the same time however, due to its small population, Alaska’s total energy demand is among the ten lowest states. Alaska also has huge potential for hydropower, however it remains untapped — in 2017, 47 percent of the state’s utility-scale electricity net generation came from natural gas and only 27 percent from hydropower. In 2018, Senator Lisa Murkwoski’s bipartisan energy reform bill called for the state to produce half of its energy with renewables such as solar, wind, tidal, and hydropower by 2025. 

Alaska is the only state with no state sales tax or personal income tax because of their heavy reliance on revenues from the oil and gas industry. However, when oil prices plummet, which they have been drastically since 2014, lawmakers must start cutting money from the budget. The state also sets aside some of its oil money for the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), which is then used to then give checks to every Alaskan citizen through the Permanent Fund Dividend (APD). Since 2019, Alaska’s government has been facing huge budget cuts from core government programs like education, Medicaid, and child care funding. The recently elected Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy proposed to pay a full PFD, about $3,000, to Alaskan citizens and vetoed nearly $400 million in state funding that the legislature had passed. The state expects more budget cuts to come. 

Climate Impacts 

The effects of climate change throughout Alaska are already extremely visible. Whole towns have been forced to uproot due to severe erosion and melting permafrost — ground that has a temperature below the freezing point of water, typically located in high-latitude regions. The government has identified at least 31 Alaskan towns and cities at risk of permanent destruction, with some projected to become uninhabitable by 2050. Communities therefore have two options: move to higher ground, or fortify buildings and roads — both of which are costly.  At least two villages, Shishmaref and Kivalina, have voted to move if they can find a suitable site and the money to do so. 

Relocating entire communities requires a great deal of funding and years of planning. There are transition periods; people staying in the old towns often remain in neglected areas with no running water and overcrowded homes. Rural communities, especially Native American, are further impacted by the changing environment because they rely heavily on natural resources. With rising temperatures, there is less ice to fish on. It is also more dangerous for people to travel on ice to hunt for walruses. Moreover, rivers are not freezing when they are supposed to, thus restricting travel in the winter. 

For the communities that decide to stay put, there are other issues to contend with. In Shaktoolik, winters are arriving later, and springs earlier. Residents who rely on offshore ice to buffer the village from storm surges and powerful waves say that there is less and less offshore ice each year. As a result, the land around the village is disappearing. According to one estimate, they are losing one acre a year, slowly turning the village into an island. Despite that, people are still holding on to their land, but will have to face tough challenges as they prepare for future storms, ensure evacuation roads are in place, have a secure water system, among others. The state and federal government are not quick to give funds either, making these fixes much more difficult to accomplish. 

The issue of permafrost melt is also incredibly pressing, as it releases vast stores of heat-trapping gases, which have been locked away under the ice, further harming the environment and creating incredibly harmful feedback loops of warming. It also causes roads to collapse, as the layers of ice and frozen dirt beneath soften quickly. The ground beneath an airport runway in the small town of Nome, is thawing, resulting in costly repairs. For Shakooklik, the costs of fixing and fortifying their town amounts to almost $100 million. 

This all begs the question of how long will Alaskans have to shoulder the burdens of the climate crisis as they present themselves in their backyards? How costly will it be? 

Addressing the climate crisis 

Although Governor Mike Dunleavy acknowledged the threat of climate change, he has yet to implement a concrete climate strategy. In fact, in 2017 he formally disbanded the task force established to oversee the state’s response to climate change. 

At the end of 2019, Anchorage Representative Andy Josephson sponsored House Resolution 12 to establish a House Special Committee on Climate Change. Currently, the bill is waiting for a hearing, but has gained two more sponsors: Representative Ivy Spohnholz and Representative Grier Hopkins. If passed, it would be the first-ever legislative committee addressing climate change in Alaska. House Special Committees are established for a two-year term and often have the authority to draft and report legislation. 

Cities leading the way 

In the wake of inaction at the state level,  Alaskan municipalities have been moving to combat climate change on their own. Anchorage, the largest city, recently adopted a climate action plan, which strives for the city to reduce carbon emissions by 80% from 2008 levels by 2050, and sets an interim reduction goal of 40% by 2030. It also requires the state to keep an inventory of the city’s greenhouse gas production, and establishes a framework for selecting and sharing indicators to track the impacts of climate change. The plan found that residents and businesses consume 79% of electricity and natural gas, and could save almost $70 million annually through energy efficiency upgrades, which Anchorage hopes to implement through various measures including building construction, switching to renewable energies like wind power, and improving transportation infrastructure by  expanding the bus system in the city. 

Despite the major work from Anchorage to target climate change, many Alaskan cities lag behind. However, many nonprofit organizations continue to push for action, like the Juneau Carbon Offset, a project of Renewable Juneau, which offers Alaskan residents and tourists an option to offset their carbon emissions.

Carbon offsetting is a way to compensate for the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases resulting from one activity, by purchasing ‘credits’ or emissions reductions elsewhere. Although the idea is sound in theory, there has been debate over its net positive impacts, and other concerns for communities where these projects are located. Some argue that it allows people and governments to continue emitting carbon without having to make the substantial systemic changes we need. 

Through the Juneau Carbon Offset fund, people can calculate their personal carbon footprint and will be given an estimated donation amount to offset those emissions. Visitors can select a flight package based on where they are flying and donate accordingly. The funds go towards the replacement of oil-burning heating systems with efficient and emissions-free heat pumps. As of October 2019, the organization hoped to install at least two home heating systems by the end of the year. To become eligible for the system, the household income has to fall below 80% of the median. 

Students are also working to build public support for climate policies. At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, students have come up with their own policy recommendations after studying Anchorage’s recent plan

“If you don’t count burning coal […] and look at the economic base of Alaska, it’s all based on burning fossil fuels” Matthew Berman, an economics professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, told Climate XChange in an interview. The major sectors in Alaska: transportation, mining, fishing, air cargo, and tourism are all energy intensive industries, generating a large share of greenhouse gases within the state. 

Berman points out that Anchorage’s plan will be challenging in the absence of a national policy to support it, because reducing carbon emissions by 80% requires structural change to Alaska’s infrastructure. 

More importantly, switching to renewable energy is difficult. Alaska cannot solely rely on wind power, and can only receive solar power for half the year. 

“Carbon pricing has to be one part of an overall solution,” Berman said. “While we can come up with a lots of individual actions that would be really useful, there are a lot of things we can’t see very well. But if we put a price on carbon that will sort of take care of itself.” 

It is promising that so many Alaskan municipalities are taking action into their own hands in regards to climate policy. However, it is important to emphasize the greater change that could come about from a state-wide effort. 

Pricing Carbon Pollution — a viable solution for Alaska

Groups like the Washington-D.C. based Climate Leadership Council, an international policy institute focused on promoting carbon dividends as a climate solution, have gone to Alaska to advocate for the “Baker-Schultz” program, a federal proposal to put a price on carbon emissions. Carbon dividends is a system that imposes a carbon tax on the sale of fossil fuels, the funds of which are then redistributed to the population as a monthly income or regular payment. This is especially significant considering members from three of Alaska’s biggest oil companies are a part of the council. 

The program would put a $40 fee per ton of domestic carbon emissions, increasing by five percent every year. The program is projected to cut the country’s carbon emissions in half by 2035 if enacted quickly at the federal level. A family of four is estimated to receive about $2000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year, with the sum growing as the carbon fee does. The plan also calls for a repeal of current federal emissions regulations to allow businesses to plan for the dividend, in hopes of gaining bipartisan support. Since Alaskan oil and gas produces less hydrocarbons than that of most other U.S. states, a carbon price could really benefit the Alaskan economy.

The Arctic is already warming faster than the rest of the planet. Native American communities are seeing their way of life threatened due to wildlife depletion and melting coastlines. Wildfires last longer each summer and flooding is leading to the relocation of entire towns. 

Yet while the state may not implement a climate action plan, municipalities, non-profit organizations and students throughout the state are working to create their own plans to mitigate and adapt to the environmental changes. Looking to the future, carbon pricing may ultimately emerge as one the most effective measures to help reduce emissions in Alaska.

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler on Unsplash