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From Palin to Parnell, the Great Alaska Climate Fail

State politicians have failed to act even as towns like Newtok face disaster.

| Thu May 30, 2013 5:02 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In September 2007, a rising star of Alaskan politics dared to take on one of the toughest, most challenging issues for any leader: climate change. That summer, seasonal ice cover had fallen to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, leaving much of the Arctic as open water. A few months earlier, 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.

Their leader was Sarah Palin, the 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," said Palin, 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 went on.

The focus on climate was temporary. Once Palin joined the Republican ticket as the running mate to John McCain in the 2008 presidential elections, Palin dismissed climate science as "snake oil". The causes of climate change—and its remedies—remain disputed territory in Alaska.

There is no disputing the real-time effects of climate change. Alaska is warming faster than anywhere else in America, setting off a circumpolar scramble for oil and other resources 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 not whether climate change is happening. The debate is over what's causing it."

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But 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.

Palin in late 2007 was still in her first year as governor of Alaska, and climate change was not yet the defining issue it was to become for America's conservative politicians.

She followed up her announcement of high-level climate change action groups by committing 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 groups of officials brought in consultants to look at ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska's oil industry and other sectors of the economy. Another set of officials worked on trying to protect Alaska's infrastructure from flooding and erosion, and the extreme storms along the coast.

The legislature sanctioned more than $12 million to help native Alaskan villages—like Newtok on the shores of the Bering Sea and 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the US from Russia—trying to shore up their communities from erosion and other climate risks, or relocate.

But Palin's efforts did not survive her brief tenure as governor. Her successor, Sean Parnell, quietly retired the cabinet and the "immediate action" working group. Neither group has met in at least two years.

The authorities in Alaska are still acutely aware of the changes under way in the polar region. State officials 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 the vast oil, coal, zinc and copper deposits beneath Arctic waters.

Alaska's leaders are also realizing the costs of a warming Arctic. The state spends $10 million a year to repair roads that buckle with melting permafrost, said Larry Hartig, who heads Alaska's Department of Environment.

But recognition of the opportunities—and costs—does not quite translate into explicit recognition of climate change and its impacts in real-time, or even on a human time scale.

Alaska's lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, likes to talk about climate change over a period of 10,000 years .

Larry Hartig, who oversaw the work of the climate change sub-cabinet established by Palin, now dismisses the original reasons for the body's existence.

"I don't look at climate change as a subject in and of itself," he said. "Coastal erosion and flooding, well, we would have them even if we didn't worry about climate change."

A graph of melting Artic sea ice
A melting cap: Arctic sea ice, which normally recedes in the summer months, saw record lows in 2012. A few estimates suggest that between 2020 and 2030 the summers could have no sea ice at all. Figures are in thousands. The Guardian

He went on to explain that he would prefer to deal directly with the impacts, rather than be drawn into that "other debate".

But from Tom John's perspective, it is hard to separate the two. John, now in his 50s, was for years counted among the best hunters in Newtok. The status is confirmed by the dappled hide of a muskox stretched out to dry outside his home. Inside, his wife, Bernice, has taken out a whole halibut to defrost for dinner from a freezer chest that is full of frozen fish and meat from previous expeditions. "Our entire world is a grocery store," said Bernice.

When John was a younger man, there was a rhythm to the days and seasons. April brought pike fish and white fish, seal and walrus. High summer on the Bering Sea brought herring, flounder and sometimes king salmon, and berries back on land. Winter brought mink, muskox, and otter, which John used to sell to a fur trader.

A hunter could strike out in almost any direction from Newtok and be assured of coming back with food. John's favourite route was out towards the ocean, five or 10 miles south, to catch bearded seal. Those patterns have now been thrown off by the changing seasons, he said.

"It seems like during the fall-time the freeze-up is getting late. I used to travel through the month of October, and I could travel through the snow without any problem, without jamming through ice," he said. "But today winter is getting late. It comes late, probably November, and I also noticed the snow pack seems harder. When I try to shovel, it's like cement. It's really hard to dig."

There are other changes on John's calendar: shorter, warmer winters, earlier springs, and the floods and rising waters that, within the next decade, could make Newtok disappear entirely beneath the Ninglick river.

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