Climate change poses an opportunity to improve Alaska’s political process

Originally published in the Alaska Dispatch News on April 1, 2015

Illustration by Aaron Jensen, published in the Alaska Dispatch News

It’s no secret that our current governments, both state and federal, let ideology overshadow possible solutions to pressing issues. Their efficacy is, consequently, greatly compromised. Congress’ approval ratings are at an all-time low, and the state Legislature is stuck arguing over the deficit. This standstill is counterproductive and harmful in a time when we collectively face some of the most difficult challenges in history.

We’re all painfully aware that this is no way to run a state or country. Fortunately, we have a unique opportunity to bridge this widening, increasingly destructive gap in political beliefs and approaches to problems. Our savior may have arrived in the form of our most threatening crisis: climate change.

With regard to environmental issues, we’ve pitted resource development against conservation and sustainability, creating an unnecessary gridlock. This obstinacy will be our undoing, and we can’t afford to let political disagreements obscure potential opportunities to regain environmental order and health. Collaborating on the urgent issue of climate change is such an efficient approach; why have we not embraced this cooperation with at least acknowledgement of its practicality, if not outright enthusiasm?

Climate change affects all of us, no matter how we vote at the polls. Alarmingly rapid increases in ocean acidification, caused by excessive atmospheric carbon levels, mean we may lose oysters (and any other type of delicious shellfish) and phytoplankton, the foundation of the entire marine food web. If these and other overwhelmingly scary scientific predictions prove correct, we could be facing a real-world apocalypse. We’re not going to beat climate change — or at least mitigate its effects to a manageable level — by adhering to the status quo and blaming the other side of the aisle.

In fact, the only way we’re going to beat climate change is by working together.

Recently, I participated in Alaska Youth for Environmental Action’s (AYEA) Civics and Conservation Summit in Juneau. In meetings with legislators and Gov. Walker, we discussed our concerns as youths regarding climate change and possible solutions.

We were extremely well received by our elected officials, and the hostility and stubbornness so often surrounding politics were absent.

Though prepped for the worst in encounters with our legislators, we were met only with appreciation and support of our civic engagement. Regardless of party identification, our politicians seemed truly motivated to serve their constituents. We need to use this shared humanity to our advantage. While the amiability was welcomed, it’s time for the next step and concrete action.

There is little doubt in my mind that the overwhelming majority of our population and our elected officials share many of the same core values. Ensuring a positive and healthy future for coming generations — especially the “kids and grandkids” frequently touted in political speeches — is the common aim. We’re all committed to a productive and sustainable economy. We all want to raise living standards across the board and progress as a society intellectually and socially.

We have differing ideas about the means but we do agree on the ends. With this acknowledgment of a mutual objective, we can then engage in respectful and vigorous debate on how to get there. The present atmosphere may not be conducive to cooperation, which means we need to create the environment that fosters working together.

AYEA’s proposal to Gov. Walker — the creation of a climate change task force devoted to bold, substantial action that includes a youth seat — is an opportunity to begin the process. Endorsed by the governor himself, this task force will only be an effective strategy with bipartisan participation and concrete policy recommendations met with serious consideration by the full Legislature.

Though Alaska produces less than 1 percent of the country’s carbon emissions, we had the third-highest 2011 per capita carbon emissions in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S. is second only to China in annual carbon emissions but is the world’s largest producer cumulatively since tracking began. Not only are we as a state near the top of our nation’s carbon footprint pyramid, generating far more than our meager population’s fair share of emissions, but our economy literally runs on oil. We are disproportionately dependent on fossil fuels, a status that has recently led to a distressing budget crisis.

We have a unique responsibility to address climate change, and in the midst of our exceedingly unbalanced political environment our solution absolutely comes in the form of transcending engrained biases and labels. With this practical approach, we can save our own skins and send a powerful message in leading the way toward tackling climate change and creating a markedly more effective governing body. We are past the point of raising awareness; now is the time for action.

With our historic election of the nonpartisan Walker-Mallott ticket, Alaska is off to a promising start. Our willingness to bypass the two-party confines is a heartening display of common sense.

To confront climate change, we need to change our political climate. And if the scientific predictions prove erroneous or exaggerated, what’s the worst that could happen? We’ll have a healthier, more efficient world. And if we achieve this by working together, well, we’ll have learned to embrace one another’s humanity and act more effectively and compassionately on a wide range of issues. What would be the adverse side effects of that?

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