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It is time to acknowledge climate change

Andy Moderow
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In Alaska there is an elephant in the room, and it is sweating. We can’t keep ignoring climate change.

As Alaskans, we know first-hand the value of resource development. Royalties from North Slope oil have built our state’s infrastructure. Unlocking Alaska’s conventional natural gas reserves could meet our needs for generations, while boosting our economy through exports.

But along with benefits, we also know of the impacts. If you need a reminder, just think of when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989. I was young, but still remember hearing the news.

Alaskans have an obligation to consider the costs and benefits of how we develop what we own, and we must carefully analyze all risks when we sell our non-renewable resources. This is a profound obligation, and as a general principle, we need to measure these costs and benefits in both the short and long term.

And on those fronts, new coal development fails the test in Alaska.

In the short run, without major tax reform, low royalties mean it can take decades for the state to recoup the cost of state-financed infrastructure. Unlike oil, mines will never drive Alaska’s economy. Property values decrease near coal mines. The human health impacts from mines and coal transportation corridors are real. Our most valuable renewable resource -- Alaska’s wild salmon -- is often threatened by projects. Need proof? One proposed project -- the Chuitna mine -- calls for digging up 11 miles of salmon spawning habitat.

Unfortunately, the long-term impacts just get worse. Scientists agree, and the rest of the world agrees. Climate change is real and humans are contributing it.

While Hurricane Sandy painted a destructive picture far away from us, it is important to note that climate change isn’t just New Jersey’s problem. Alaskans have already felt the impact of climate change first hand -- look no further than the eroding villages of Shishmaref and Kivalina.

Our university is taking action to better understand the challenges ahead, beyond eroding coastlines that we’ve already observed. Ocean acidification -- a byproduct of increasing carbon dioxide emissions -- has the potential to undermine Alaska’s seafood industry. Fortunately, money was appropriated during the last legislative session to better understand the impact on our fisheries.

But we shouldn’t just understand the negative impacts we create. We should also prevent them. Alaska holds an estimated 20 percent of global coal reserves, and new coal projects are emerging in our backyards. Old, expired permits are being dusted off and evaluated by multinational corporations. When assisted by a governor eager to subsidize the cost of extractive industry infrastructure, multinational corporations have the potential to win big profits for shareholders.

Last week we chose elected officials, and we’ll return two years from now to hold them accountable. In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of ways to have our voices heard.

Take, for instance, the proposed coal lease sale in the Canyon Creek region near Skwentna. This lease area includes multiple salmon streams, in a drainage that runs into the Yentna and Susitna rivers, and eventually on to Cook Inlet. The coal from the lease would add to the problems of ocean acidification and climate change.

A hearing will take place 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Wendler Middle School, 2905 Lake Otis Parkway in Anchorage, and comments can be submitted through Nov. 21 (details are available here).

Alaskans should participate in this hearing, they should submit comments, and they should ask that policymakers to consider all the impacts when they make this and other important permitting decision. We should stand up for salmon and against negative impacts on our climate.

It is the least we can do, not only for us today, but also for future generations of Alaskans.

Andy Moderow is a lifelong Alaskan and executive director of Alaska Conservation Alliance.