Climate change has always been a sticky issue for Alaska policymakers. In a state that sits on the front lines of global warming but remains deeply dependent on oil, it sometimes seems like the easiest option is just not talking about it at all.
But now, Gov. Bill Walker and Democrats in the state House are considering some tentative steps to tackle the issue. And they’re picking up where another Alaska governor left off.
The Walker administration has been signaling for months that it wants to develop a formal climate change policy. The governor even previewed the effort in his State of the State speech on Jan. 18.
“Alaska is the only Arctic state in the nation, and we are ground zero for climate impacts,” Walker said. “We must maintain the integrity of our land, air and water for future generations. My administration is developing a framework to engage Alaskans in this effort [to] protect our way of life.”
In the speech, Walker sounded a lot like the last Alaska governor to tackle climate change — Sarah Palin.
“As the largest and only Arctic state, we’re also studying climate change, through our DEC-led sub-cabinet,” Palin said in her last State of the State speech in 2009. Her sub-cabinet — essentially a working group of government officials established by administrative order in 2007 — was the last major statewide policy effort on climate change.
Larry Hartig chaired that effort, as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation — a job he still has, two governors later. He said when his team first started talking about climate change adaptation, they were ahead of their time.
“In the early years, I would go to meetings with other states or other countries, and I would be talking about adaptation, and they would look at me like I was doing something sinful,” Hartig said, because talking about climate change was supposed to mean talking about stopping climate change, by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“It was like you were distracting people from the real work if you wanted to talk about how you’re going to adapt to change,” he said. “It was kind of like giving up.”
Now, of course, nearly ten years later, adapting to climate change is no longer an outlandish idea.
Palin’s sub-cabinet was supposed to draft an overarching state climate strategy, to deal with impacts, cut emissions and triage the most threatened communities. Hartig says a lot of good work came out of that effort; you can still find the reports online. But there was never any final strategy. Under Gov. Sean Parnell, the focus shifted. The sub-cabinet is still on the books, but it last met in 2010.
Now, Walker is trying to revive that effort, and he’s tapped Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott to head it. I asked Mallott what’s in the works.
“Well, there is a climate policy process in the works,” he said. “What’s in it, is a work in progress.”
If that sounds vague, well, it is — deliberately so, Mallott said. He said he knows climate change is a touchy subject, and he’s trying to get a lot of input before moving forward. He said he wants to get beyond the political debate over what causes climate change and focus on dealing with its impacts.
“Let’s get at making progress in such a way that regardless of your core belief as to what causes it, [we can] focus on its reality and how do we deal with that,” Mallott said. “Because if I start from the place, ‘I believe it’s human caused,’ then I’ve already begun to disengage from voices that believe differently. And they need to be heard.”
Ultimately, Mallott said, the state needs to plan not only for environmental change, but for changes in international policy and the markets, which, he said, are likely moving toward a low-carbon future whether Alaska likes it or not.
The administration is aiming to release something more concrete this spring.
Meanwhile, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, the new co-chair of the House Resources Committee, plans to introduce a climate bill within weeks.
Josephson said the issue has taken on a new urgency since the November election.
“It’s a higher priority because I don’t have a White House anymore that cares,” he said. “And that is profoundly concerning and frustrating. So for the next three years and 11 and a half months, it’s not going to come from the federal government.”
Josephson said his bill will likely call for an outside commission to recommend specific legislation. He’s also considering a climate change mitigation fund. That would add a small per-barrel carbon tax on oil production to fund climate adaptation, like evacuation roads or new schools for eroding villages.
But there is less appetite in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, is chair of the Senate Resources Committee. She said Alaska already taxes oil production to pay for infrastructure — that’s basically how the state budget works.
And she pointed out that Alaska has a different set of incentives than, say, California. In a state that still gets much of its revenue from oil, she said, if we want more money to deal with climate impacts, we need more oil production, not less.
“Should we hamper Alaska in developing our financial means to handle these challenges?” she asked. “I think that it would be very short-sighted and imprudent.”
Giessel, who is also the Senate chair for Arctic Policy, said she has doubts about whether human activity is the main driver behind climate change. And she worries that even discussing the issue opens up a dangerous can of worms.
“Every day we have change in our environment. Of course we plan for change,” Giessel said. “But there are many folks that take this opportunity to advocate for completely shutting down our state. And that’s the risk when you start opening this kind of conversation up.”