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Alaska Climate Change Roundtable

Aurora over the Beaufort sea
Aurora borealis over the Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean, looking north from Barter Island, Kaktovik, in Alaska's high arctic.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in a “Climate Change Roundtable Discussion” convened by Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott. The roundtable brought together representatives of industry, government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities to think creatively about steps that could be taken by the State to address the challenges being posed by climate change in Alaska. We were asked not to represent our individual organizations or companies but, instead, to engage in productive dialogue to help guide future State policy.

In Alaska, the challenges posed by climate change are particularly acute. Villages are literally at risk of falling into the ocean, our ocean and terrestrial ecosystems are changing, and ways of life that have existed for millennia are threatened. Because they are colder and subject to significant fresh water runoff from melting snow and glaciers, our oceans are particularly at risk from acidification. As the ocean become more acidic, they will be less able to support shellfish and salmon. Alaska without salmon is unthinkable!

Perhaps because we are seeing the impacts firsthand, much of the national discourse about the cause of climate change seems both counterproductive and politically motivated. Yes, of course, it is disappointing to hear President Trump call climate change a Chinese hoax and, yes, it is both irresponsible and unethical for the president to withdraw from the Paris Accord. To be very clear, there should be no question that climate change is real, and it is the result of human activities. That should not be up for debate.

And, at the climate change roundtable, we didn’t go there at all. Instead, we were brought together to help the State figure out what it can do in the face of the very clear reality that—no matter the cause—things are changing rapidly here. We were asked to work together to think about avenues for adaptation, mitigation, research and response.

The need to take these actions cuts across traditional political/social/economic divides. Sarah Palin had a climate change subcabinet. In 2012, our legislature created an Alaska Arctic Policy Commission. Shortly after taking office, Governor Walker, formerly a Republican, and Lieutenant Governor Mallott, a Democrat, convened a bipartisan transition team, of which I was a part. One of the reports from that transition process focuses on Arctic policy and climate change. It is here: https://gov.alaska.gov/Walker_media/transition_page/arctic-policy-and-climate-change_final.pdf.

It’s often said that Alaska is “the biggest little state” in the country. We are facing an immense challenge as we think about how to ensure the future resilience of our communities and ecosystems. Yes, it would be better if there was leadership from our federal government. Even without it, however, we can work with one another, harness our Alaskan spirit, and finds ways to move forward together. The Climate Change Roundtable was another step in the right direction, and we at Ocean Conservancy look forward to working with the administration and other Alaskans to implement some of the good ideas that were discussed.

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