IN September 2007, a rising star of Alaskan politics dared to take on one of the toughest issues for any leader: climate change. That summer, seasonal ice cover had fallen to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979. A few months earlier, former US vice president Al Gore had won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth.
It seemed as if the timing was right to deal with climate change and so the politician approached a group of high-level officials to develop a climate change strategy for Alaska.
The politician was Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska before her entry into national Republican party politics.
“Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural and economic issue important to all Alaskans,” Palin said, announcing two new working groups on climate change.
“As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans,” she said.
The focus on climate was temporary. Once Palin joined the Republican ticket as the running mate to Senator John McCain in the 2008 US presidential elections, she dismissed climate science as “snake oil.”
The causes of climate change — and its remedies — remain disputed in Alaska. However, there is no disputing its effects. Alaska is warming faster than anywhere else in the US, setting off a scramble for oil given up by the melting ice and threatening the livelihood of those who still live off the land and the sea.
“Up here in Alaska, I would say most people do not have an argument that climate change is happening, because we see it,” said Douglas Causey, a wildlife biologist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. “The debate is over what’s causing it.”
However, those debates, and the fierce politics surrounding climate change, compromise efforts to deal with the causes and protect the people who will bear a huge part of the consequences.
In late 2007 Palin was still in her first year as governor of Alaska and climate change was not the defining issue it was to become for US conservatives. She followed up her announcement of high-level climate change action groups with an even bigger conservative heresy: signing Alaska up as an observer to the regional cap-and-trade partnership, the Western Climate Initiative.
During Palin’s time as governor, high-level officials brought in consultants to look at ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska’s oil industry and other sectors. Another set worked on trying to protect Alaska’s infrastructure from flooding, erosion and the extreme storms along the coast. The legislature sanctioned more than US$12 million to help indigenous Alaskan villages — such as Newtok, 643.7km south of the Bering Strait that separates the US from Russia — trying to shore up communities from climate risks or relocate.
Palin’s efforts did not survive her tenure as governor. Her successor, Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell, retired the Cabinet and “immediate action” working group.
Alaskan officials are still acutely aware of the changes and are working hard to position Alaska for an age in which shipping traffic across the pole doubles every year, and international concerns compete to mine vast oil, coal, zinc and copper deposits. They also realize the costs of a warming Arctic. The state spends US$10 million a year repairing roads that buckle as the permafrost underneath melts, says Larry Hartig, head of Alaska’s environment department. However, recognition of costs — and opportunities — does not translate into explicit recognition of climate change and the impact it is already having. Alaskan Lieutenant-Governor Mead Treadwell talks about climate change over a period of 10,000 years.