Climate change response in Alaska: “Do, but don’t talk”?

GlacierThe other day, I read a news report about how Siberian policymakers are “lukewarm” about the impacts of global warming — or, more accurately, Russian policymakers are lukewarm, whereas local Siberian scientists are sounding the alarm — and it reminded me of the interesting rhetorical response to the same issue in Alaska, a U.S. state that is similarly dependent on fossil fuel extraction, and similarly hungry for infrastructure development.

It hasn’t been all that long since the first leg of my research project on resource management and human development in Alaska was completed, and I hope to make this the first of several posts discussing some of the important policy discussions pertinent to the situation. How, then, are businesses, policymakers, nonprofits, scientists, and the common public responding to climate change? Are they taking it seriously enough, given Alaska’s position as an Arctic state?

Well, yes… and no.

For one, it became evident to me that climate change is made sense of by native communities in very real, concrete terms, rather than “scientific” facts about the volume of sea ice. Given the far-flung and remote nature of much of Alaska — so that more than half of Alaska’s 700,000-odd residents are concentrated in the city of Anchorage — changing climates and environmental conditions are understood in terms of how it affects traditional subsistence patterns of livelihood. This includes: shift in the caribou herds, or the thinning of river and lake ice compared to past generations’ observations, or the precarious nature of life owing to the ever-present nature of strong coastal tides gradually destroying your village… These impacts are real enough, as are the waves of migration of native Alaskans to Anchorage and other towns, searching for work and more predictable livelihood, as well as the potential windfall from resource extraction companies that want to drill in nearby areas.

This potential windfall concerns not just native communities, however, but Alaskan citizens across the board, whose economy is greatly dependent on oil and gas (as much as 1/3rd of the economy is based on O&G, whereas federal government activity and “other economic sectors” make up the remaining two-thirds) and who often complain bitterly that they are paying for the Lower 48 states’ natural calamities by not being allowed to extract the maximum petroleum resources. Fossil fuels, then, are such an integral part of the state’s stumbling economy, that the slowdown in oil production means that practically no policymaker will argue for a halt on drilling — even those who believe that climate change is a clear and present danger.

VOTE-NO-ON-1.-GRAPHICSThat is (one of the things, at least!) what makes this debate so intriguing for me. It’s hard — nay, impossible — to caricature these stakeholder groups as ignorant, unscientific, or unfamiliar with climate science, or vested only with political gain, when I start engaging deeper. Oil and gas practically formed the state, allowed it to evolve from an erstwhile colony of the United States to what it is. And, even though there are several Alaskans who would tax the larger oil companies for a greater share of the revenues accruing from their oil — the “Yes/No on 1” vote was uppermost in peoples’ minds while I was visiting — even they are committed to the fossil fuel sector. The topography of the land, the harsh weather during the winter, the lack of in-state food production facilities, and the difficulty of making manufacturing viable given the low population, are but some of the issues that make fossil fuels indispensable, at least for the time being.

And so, we have an interesting “do, but don’t talk” situation about climate change, or even about resource management in general, in Alaska. Communities are petitioning the state for funds to shore up their coastlines against erosion, or to protect themselves again increased landslides or tundra fires, citing enhanced natural dangers, but they do not acknowledge — at least officially — the underlying climate change issues that cause them. Nor do state officials ask them. Business and investors are engaged in deep conversations about opening new ports to take advantage of melting multi-year sea ice, while seeking help on sophisticated technologies to help navigate potential dangers, yet are hesitant to admit the cause behind these melts. Legislators strive to create new jobs and infrastructure projects to employ people who migrate to the cities, or remote areas that cry out for development aid, but seem steadfast in equating “resource development” with “resource extraction.” For these folks, climate change might well be yet another bogeyman by the feds, to prevent Alaskans from developing their state to their best advantage — a narrative that fits almost seamlessly with Alaska’s history of colonization and neglect, at the hands of first the Russians and then Washington.

This is not to say that there are no alternative framings possible, or that the actions enacted under “do, but don’t talk” are not influential in their own right. But those stories are for another post(s).

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