Alaska must play a key role in America’s climate solutions
Alaska is undoubtedly one of the wildest places left in the country, one of the places most impacted by climate change, and one that must play a key role in addressing the global climate crisis.
(Cover photo: Our polar bear joined Jane Fonda at her Fire Drill Fridays last summer, highlighting the importance of protecting the Arctic. (Alaska Wilderness League)
This was made especially clear in a new report released today by the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. This report, which is expected to serve as the climate policy guide for House leaders, directly references the role that public lands and waters in Alaska must play in addressing the climate crisis:
The climate benefits of land conservation are illustrated by Alaska, home to a large portion of America’s protected public lands and even more are in need of permanent protection. A 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report stated that the “amount of carbon stored on Federal lands in Alaska was approximately 62 percent of the total carbon stored on Federal lands, indicating Alaska’s importance in the overall U.S. carbon balance.”
The Committee’s report made clear that public lands and waters in Alaska must be protected from the threat of oil and gas development in order to keep stored carbon in the ground. Similarly, old-growth forests like the Tongass National Forest that offer significant levels of carbon sequestration must also be protected from threats such as clear-cut logging. The report calls for protecting 30% of land and water by 2030, an effort supported by both by scientists and congressional leaders to save nature and slow down climate change. This 30×30 goal has provided the perfect opportunity to elevate the urgent need for protecting Alaska, which would keep enormous amounts of carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere.
The report also recognizes the fact that some areas are just too special to drill due to ecological or cultural values, like the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which the House of Representatives voted to protect from drilling last year by passing bipartisan legislation introduced by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA). The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, a critical subsistence resource for the Gwich’in people who consider the calving grounds a sacred place.
As Congress releases this groundbreaking report highlighting the unique role of Alaska in the solution to the climate crisis, Alaska Wilderness League is excited to release a statement which outlines our mission and approach to confronting the threat of climate change. This statement focuses on the following five key aspects.
1. Climate Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
A foundation of our work is standing with and supporting Alaska’s Indigenous people, who have historically lived on and protected the lands that we now work to preserve.
Alaska is on the front-lines of the climate crisis and the impacts are being realized most acutely by Alaska Natives, threatening sacred ancestral homelands and burial sites, cultural traditions, personal health and livelihoods. There are threats to the entire subsistence way of life: wildfires are increasing, sea ice is declining, historical migration patterns for animals like caribou are changing, and ice cellars to preserve food are melting along with permafrost. Already there have been massive die offs of essential food sources, like seals and gray whales.
2. Making All of Alaska’s Public Lands and Waters Part of the Climate Solution
Alaska Wilderness League believes Alaska’s public lands and waters are an indispensable part of a broader set of climate solutions.
There is no doubt that Alaska plays a key role in a comprehensive solution to the climate crisis. Approximately 62% of all carbon stored on federal lands is stored in Alaska, illustrating how incredibly important it is that these lands and waters are protected to prevent more carbon from being released into the atmosphere. Oil and gas reserves located beneath public lands and waters in Alaska leased during the Trump administration are expected to release over 500 million tons of carbon. And that doesn’t include the carbon implications from millions of acres of older leases or from massive projects currently being proposed.
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, mandated by Congress, could result in the release of an estimated 4.3 billion tons of carbon over the 70-year course of development. The Tongass National Forest holds a carbon stock of an estimated 400 million tons, approximately 10% of all the carbon held by U.S. forests, and sequesters an additional three million tons of carbon each year, all of which is threatened by clear-cut logging due to the potential repeal of the Roadless Rule. In combination, these planned developments threaten to release about five billion tons of carbon over their lifetime. To better put this into perspective, that is equivalent to the annual global emissions for all passenger vehicles.
3. Securing a Just Economic Transition for Alaskans
We recognize Alaska’s unique economic reliance on oil and gas revenues, and we are committed to a just economic transition for Alaskans, especially for front-line and Indigenous communities.
With volatile oil markets in 2020 resulting from some of the lowest demand in history, it has become clear that oil and gas revenues cannot provide a sustainable base for Alaska’s economy. Already, major banks like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo have outlined policies which prohibit financing of oil projects in the Arctic. These banks recognize that placing new long-term bets on Arctic oil is not only economic folly, but would run counter to both climate and human rights goals.
The Alaska congressional delegation has attacked these bank actions, refusing to focus on the urgent need to diversify the state’s oil and gas-based economy dependent economy. Even after decades of declining oil revenues, Senator Lisa Murkowski, in speaking to the state legislature earlier this year, said: “The very last drop of oil that the world uses should come from Alaska’s North Slope.”
Squeezing every drop of oil from some of the most sensitive and remote landscapes on the planet will make it impossible to meet our carbon reduction goals. Research has shown that to keep the rise in global temperature below two degrees Celsius, oil reserves in the Arctic must remain untouched.
A just transition away from oil and gas is necessary to both combat climate change and to provide a sustainable economy, especially for front-line and Indigenous communities.
4. Enhancing Climate Resiliency across Alaska’s Public Lands and Waters
We are committed to enhancing the resilience of Alaska’s public lands and waters by conserving their ecosystems in this time of change. We will advocate for policies that help to identify, mitigate and otherwise minimize climate-caused damage to the flora, fauna and communities of the Alaskan Arctic.
The remote Arctic village of Kivalina is a quintessential example of a frontline community currently at risk and why it is necessary to enhance local climate resiliency. The island on which Kivalina is located was once protected from winter storms by sea ice, but that ice no longer forms early enough in the fall to prevent rising waters and surging storms from reaching shore. At the same time, thawing permafrost is resulting in the streambank being washed away. Communities like Kivalina, as well as ecosystems across Alaska, are facing devastation from climate change. Now more than ever it is paramount that we focus on solutions to mitigate these impacts.
5. Respecting Climate Science and Incorporating Traditional Knowledge of Alaskans
Alaska Wilderness League is committed to problem-solving that is guided by both traditional knowledge and science, and we aim to help bridge the gap between the two as policies are considered or implemented in Washington, D.C.
Warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe and seeing ocean temperatures measured at more than 9 degrees above average, there is no doubt that Alaska is being intensely impacted by climate change. A recent study involving 21 research institutes from around the world found summer Arctic sea-ice is predicted to disappear before 2050, resulting in devastating consequences for Arctic ecosystems. Nowhere in America are fish, wildlife and the communities that rely upon them at greater threat from climate change.
We must respond accordingly. We must incorporate the traditional knowledge of Alaska Natives and use that knowledge alongside science to ensure a sustainable future, particularly for Indigenous communities. This means both working with Indigenous people who hold traditional knowledge as well as elevating their lived experiences.
Alaska’s remaining wild landscapes provide intact ecosystems critical for wildlife habitat and other important subsistence resources, but they also have the ability to store and sequester the world’s carbon. Alaska should be among the first places we look to protect in our quest to solve the climate crisis.