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Global warming

Sarah’s salvation

As the cost of climate change becomes more apparent to Alaskans, a committee set up by a former governor may be headed for a revival
Sarah Palin’s idea is all that stands between places like Kivalina and oblivion

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Quick, which recent US governor once said of global warming: “Some scientists tell us to expect more changes in the future. We must begin to prepare for those changes now.”

If you were surprised that the answer is Sarah Palin, who held office in Alaska for two and half years between 2006 and 2009 (and who later has later used the terms “hoax” and “snake oil” to describe global warming), consider another comment of hers about the impact rising temperatures was having on the state.

“Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural and economic issue important to all Alaskans.”

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Both statements were made in connection with the establishment, in 2007, of Alaska’s Climate Change Subcabinet, an advisory body responsible for things like gathering research about the changes the state’s climate was in for, and what could be done to prepare for them.

Ms Palin’s personal convictions about the causes of global warming aside (she did not believe humans played a role) she was clear about its wide-ranging impacts: among the state officials identified to advise her on the topic were the commissioners of commerce, community, environmental conservation, fish and game, natural resources and transport.

The high point of the sub-cabinet’s work was a 2009 report, compiled by its Immediate Action Work Group, that identified communities facing the most immediate threat from a changing climate, as well as steps it said ought to be taken before 2010.

After skipping a generation under Ms Palin’s successor, the sub-cabinet now appears poised for a return. During his annual State of the State address this year, Bill Walker, who assumed office in 2014, echoed Ms Palin’s sentiment, stating that “Alaskans have known for some time that our landscape is changing at an accelerating pace. Alaska is the only Arctic state in the nation – and we are ground zero for climate impacts.”

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That Mr Walker was interested in reviving the sub-cabinet has been known since even before he took office. In August 2015 expectations this was going to be the case grew, when Craig Fleener, his Arctic advisor, mentioned its work during GLACIER, a conference organised by the State Department and attended by Barack Obama. Mr Fleener later confirmed to the Alaska Dispatch News, a news outlet this website collaborates with, that the sub-cabinet would be back in some form.

So far, however, proponents of bringing back the sub-cabinet have been waiting in vain. Other state lawmakers have given them some hope, by indicating they would push to implement its recommendations, along with other climate-friendly legislation.

In the meantime, signs of a changing climate have become clearer. Among last year’s noteworthy developments: the village of Shishmaref, threatened by coastal erosion, became the first settlement in the US to vote to be relocated due to the effects of global warming. State-wide, temperatures last year were as much 4°C above normal, and most places in the state recorded an above-normal temperature at least 70% of the days last year.

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The widespread warmth in 2016, according to according to Noaa, a science agency, had several reasons: El Niño, persistently warm ocean surface temperatures and the long-term temperature increase due to increasing levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Noaa says all evidence points to those gasses being the result of human activity. Sceptics, like Ms Palin, remain unconvinced. Both sides, however, agree that the changes will damage infrastructure, reduce ice pack, thaw permafrost, permit more tree growth and alter living patterns for indigenous groups.

The costs of all this to Alaskans has also become increasingly clear: during GLACIER, Mr Fleener presented figures showing that, between 2008 and 2013, the cost of repairing damage from flooding alone was $90 million. More recently, a paper*, published in the January 10 edition of PNAS, a journal, calculates that by 2099, the state could wind up spending $5.5 billion to repair damages to public infrastructure.

The amount, according to the paper, could be brought down to $2.3 million, if greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced globally, and if the state takes “proactive adaptation” measures of the sort the sub-cabinet recommends. Such measures, it finds, would be particularly effective for road flooding, where the annual savings could be upwards of 80%.

While the first measure is beyond the reach of state legislators, the ability to do something about second, thanks to Ms Palin, can be seen from the governor’s house.

*Malvin, April et al. Climate change damages to Alaska public infrastructure and the economics of proactive adaptation, PNAS, January 10, 2017 

Photo: Noaa