Murkowski’s message at AFN? “Climate change is real.”

Sen. Lisa Murkoski addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives on Oct. 21, 2017. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media)
Sen. Lisa Murkoski addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives on Oct. 21, 2017. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media)

On stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Saturday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski did not mince words.

“Climate change is real,” she told the audience firmly. “Climate change is real.”

Murkowski wasn’t the only one delivering that message. Climate change was very much on the agenda this year, as delegates passed a resolution asking the federal government to make climate impacts in rural villages eligible for disaster relief.

Murkowski opened her speech Saturday with a discussion of healthcare, but quickly pivoted.

“While healthcare has been the issue that has been dominating our days, it isn’t the issue that is defining our time,” she said. “Our world is changing. The world around us is changing: socially, economically, and ecologically. And we all know that climate change is at the heart of this change.”

Murkoswki said effects are being felt across the state: “Newtok, Kivalina, Shishmaref: these are the names that seem to most make the news,” she said. “But it’s also our Interior communities as well. Almost every village faces similar impact. ”

And, she said, it’s time to take action. As for what that action might look like, Murkowski focused on alternative energy systems being pioneered in remote communities around the state, saying Alaska can lead the way on energy innovation.

“Confronting climate change and adapting to it will take leadership, it will take partnership and attention to social justice if we are to find the strength to tackle the issue together,” she said.

Her focus on climate change puts Murkowski at odds with the Trump administration and many in her own party, including the rest of the Alaska delegation. But she remains one of the oil industry’s strongest supporters in Congress. Just last week, she advanced a resolution that could be the first step in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling — a victory she did not mention from the AFN stage.

AFN also gave prominent billing Friday to one of the villages most affected by climate change. Newtok Village Council president Paul Charles told the gathering that his community is being destroyed by rapid erosion and thawing permafrost.

“However you want to call it, it is real,” Charles said. “And my village is in trouble. So what’s next? We need funding. Not only for Newtok, but other communities that are going through the same thing.”

On Saturday, AFN delegates passed a resolution introduced by the village of Newtok, calling on the federal government to expand the definition of a major disaster to include the “slow-moving” impacts of climate change, like thawing permafrost.

The Obama administration denied federal disaster requests earlier this year from both Newtok and Kivalina, saying they did not meet the requirements of the Stafford Act, the major law governing disaster assistance in the U.S. That means Alaska villages facing climate-related erosion aren’t eligible for the kind of disaster relief currently going to Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of major hurricanes.

Former ambassador Mark Brzezinski said the Obama administration was considering changing that definition during its last weeks in office, but ran out of time. Brzezinski led the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee under Obama. He spoke on a panel at AFN Friday. In an interview afterwards, he called on the Trump administration or Congress to finish that work.

“It would be a great act of leadership on the part of our federal government to take a specific look at changing the definition of what is a disaster to help those towns and cities, as part of a reconciliation between Washington and the federal government and the Alaska Native community,” Brzezinski said.

For her part, Murkowski didn’t directly address the issue of disaster relief for villages. But she said the impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately in rural Alaska: “Our challenge is to improve the resilience of our communities now, not wait for the disasters to come,” Murkowski said.

At AFN, at least, many would argue the disasters are already here.

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