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Making Waves: Alaska

June 28, 2023

Climate problems may seem too big to tackle, yet people all around this great nation are taking action. This is a state-by-state review of how some are responding. This week’s column looks at ALASKA and the question is: What can we learn about climate solutions from indigenous peoples?

Alaska (along with nearly all arctic environments) is warming at more than twice the global rate. Some sources say it’s closer to 4x the rate. Climate impacts: decreased snow cover, accelerated warming of permafrost (the frozen tundra), glacial melting, ocean warming, loss of sea ice and the collapse of irreplaceable expanses of the ice shelf. Lands once protected by ice are being ravaged by erosion on seashore and riverbanks; more than 200 native villages are at risk.

Although Alaska is rich in fossil fuels, its residents pay steep energy prices. Crude is shipped to refineries in the lower 48. The high costs are mitigated by a dividend the state pays to residents, funded by revenues from drilling.

While Alaska’s state government perpetuates economic dependency on fossil fuel, one group – the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) – has succeeded over the past decade organizing cooperative networks of utility companies, private businesses and community groups. Together they’ve created an important testing ground for new technologies, paved the way for electric bus transportation, and introduced conservation curricula into public schools. REAP has pressured legislators to establish the Renewable Energy Fund (REF) which supports projects that lower CO2 and stabilize energy costs by increasing use of renewable energy.

Nowhere is the question of continued extraction of fossil fuel more consequential than in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Peabody Award-winning Threshold Podcast is a series that in Season 3 looks closely at the complex forces for and against drilling in ANWR. The 2017 third season was been updated for recent developments, including the Jan 6th, 2021 lease sales Trump authorized. Find it at where you can listen to the whole season, or just dip your toe in with Season 3, Episode 4: Do It in a Good Way, Parts 1 & 2, featuring native voices, in particular, women of the Gwich’in (Caribou People) tribe whose entire existence is dependent on the land and natural resources of ANWR.

Any view of the climate situation in Alaska cannot be separated from the knife’s edge along which indigenous people in Alaska are walking. Some tribes’ cultural approach to living in harmony with arctic ecosystems has survived for over 20,000 years, yet they’re rarely involved in nor consulted about land use policies affecting their territories. Native people are bearing the brunt of climate change; they are among the earliest North American climate-displaced people; they have little say in the decisions about extractive industries that alter the land and poison the well of nature. Some are for drilling and others not; they all want their voices heard.

One experienced voice you can hear belongs to Chief Bill Erasmus from the huge Dene Nation (see the useful tribal map at ). His interview is part of a native effort to collect stories from various tribes across the globe.

Podcast: Tribal Wisdom ( 04/2022
Episode: Leadership and Decision Making [~42 mins]

This interview gives you the big picture of how First Nation people see their place in history and international affairs, how tribal leaders make decisions affecting their communities, and how they view intellectual property and sovereign rights.

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, or have a comment about my column or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest Press 05-11-2022. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year.


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