Alaska Demonstrates a Bipartisan Approach to Climate Change is Possible

ANCHORAGE - "Hello.  I'm a Republican, and I believe in climate change."  These words opened a presentation at the Alaska Forum on the Environment and indicate that, here in Alaska, issues surrounding climate change have often transcended the partisanship that sometimes dominates the issue 3,000 miles away in Washington.

This bipartisanship has evolved because probably no place in America is the evidence of climate change more clearly on display than in Alaska.  Climate change’s leading edge is in the Arctic, and temperatures in Alaska have risen 4 degrees or even more depending on location.  With warming and its impacts visible to all and being increasingly analyzed on a local level, discussions of climate change, especially as it relates to adaptation, take on a tone all too unfamiliar inside the Beltway.

The warming of Alaska has had impacts around the state, but rural areas and Native Alaskan villages have been hardest hit.  Take, for instance, the village of Kivalina.  As winter sea ice has retreated, this coastal community is now regularly battered by hurricane-style waves during frequent winter storms.  The waves have gotten so high that not only has the community been faced with increasing erosion that threatens existing infrastructure, it has even had to be evacuated temporarily to prevent loss of life. In addition to coastal erosion also occurring in places like Point Hope, warmer conditions affecting the village water supply lead to algal blooms creating expensive and dangerous problems for the village’s water filtration system, threatening the health of residents.  Communities across the state that rely on traditional subsistence food sources are dealing with changing fish and wildlife patterns that threaten food security.

Various presenters at the Forum also looked at climate change's impacts on areas other than the rural communities.  Urban residents are faced with changes from everything more costly infrastructure upgrades, to flooding, to the potential for decreasing ski days.  The oil industry on the North Slope is confronted with melting permafrost undermining existing infrastructure.  Meanwhile the fishing industry is dealing with newly shifting fish resources, such as Bering Sea pollock, which is moving farther from shore and into Russian waters.

So at the Forum, Alaska's diverse views focused on pragmatic approaches to dealing with climate change.  There was engagement from the Obama administration, Alaska's Republican Administration, a bipartisan Congressional delegation, the Native community and village and tribal representatives, environmental organizations, and the private sector.  All realize the high stakes of climate change in Alaska.

The result has been a recognition by major stakeholders that demonstrates that climate change need not be a partisan issue. Of course, the multifaceted approach to climate change that has evolved in Alaska is not without its problems and delays.  The challenges faced are large and the solutions can be hard to come by and controversial.  But as Washington, D.C., has experienced winter weather reminiscent of Anchorage, we can hope the same type of engagement by all parties will happen there as well.

Michael Tubman is a Congressional Affairs Fellow