Kids Challenge Alaska’s Climate Paradox: The State Promotes Oil as Global Warming Wreaks Havoc

The dangers of climate change are immediate and extreme here, yet most of Alaska's revenue comes from the expanding oil and gas industry.

In coastal Alaska, communities count on winter sea ice to buffer the shore from damaging waves. The ice is disappearing and erosion is getting worse as the Arctic warms twice as fast the global average. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

In coastal Alaska, communities count on winter sea ice to buffer the shore from damaging waves, but the ice is disappearing and erosion is getting worse as the Arctic warms twice as fast as the global average. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

When Tasha Elizarde was a young girl, she would climb up a mountain a few miles outside her home in Juneau, Alaska, to a scenic overlook, where she could gaze at the Mendenhall Glacier.

But over the course of her childhood, the glacier began to vanish. From the time she was 8 until she turned 16, it receded about 1,800 feet. Now, standing at the same overlook, "we can't even see it anymore," she said.

Now 19 years old, Elizarde has joined 15 other young Alaskans who are suing the state of Alaska for causing climate change and failing to protect the climate for future generations. They are asking for a science-based energy policy—one that will shift to renewable energy sources and bring greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

These kids live in places where dangerous waves are eating away at the shorelines as the sea ice vanishes; where thawing permafrost is undermining roads; and where the ocean is acidifying and hurting the local seafood industry.

The young plaintiffs in the case are being represented by the nonprofit Our Children's Trust, which is supporting similar cases in other states, as well as a federal case that will head to trial in October.

While the Alaska case mirrors the other lawsuits, it also represents a unique paradox: In Alaska, not only are the impacts of warming both immediate and extreme, but the state is also contributing to climate change through its continued production of oil and gas.

"When we're looking at the health of the state and the people of this state, it's important to recognize that what we're doing is not the right course," Elizarde said.

Alaska's Reliance on Oil Runs Deep

Oil represents the lifeblood of Alaska's economy. Revenue from oil and gas accounts for the lion's share of Alaska's budget, and since dividend payments for Alaska residents began in 1982, a family of four living there would have received $133,461.

As President Donald Trump has sought to increase fossil fuel exploration and production, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pushed to successfully open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling for the first time, and an oil leasing sale of record-breaking proportions was held in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in late 2017.

Murkowski, like Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, embodies the Alaskan paradox: She accepts climate science and the role that fossil fuels play in exacerbating global warming. Yet she is pushing the state on a no-holds-barred pursuit of fossil fuel development.

Mendenhall Glacier time-lapse, 2007-2015. Credit: Extreme Ice Survey.

Earlier this week, the youth case went before Alaska Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller as the state sought to dismiss the lawsuit. One of the final arguments from the state's assistant attorney general was that "Alaska is not destroying the environment. Alaska is not causing climate change."

Andrew Welle, co-counsel for the young plaintiffs, begs to differ. "Alaska is by no means a small contributor to climate change," he said. As one of the largest oil and gas producing states in the country, it also has outsized greenhouse gas contributions.

Arctic Drilling Pollution Affects Warming Now

The impact that oil and gas production has on climate change has a lot to do with geography, and Alaska's Arctic location ups the ante. At the same time that carbon dioxide emissions are locking in future warming, the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants—especially black carbon—are exacerbating warming now.

When black carbon is emitted through gas flaring or the use of diesel generators or the burning of fuel for transportation, its impact is felt locally.

Black carbon—dark particulate matter—"always has its greatest impact closest to the source, and with all the snow and ice in and around Alaska, the black carbon impact is greatly magnified when it darkens that snow and ice, causing more to melt," said Pam Pearson, the director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, a network of senior policy experts and researchers working to preserve the world's frozen places.

As the sea ice rapidly melts, the impacts are being felt around the world.

State Leaders: 'We Must Do Both'

In late March, Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott published an article in the Juneau Empire that acknowledged the difficulty of reconciling climate change's impact and an economy dependent on fossil fuel development.

"The question in front of us is not whether we can remain an oil and gas producing state or strengthen our commitment to addressing climate change — we must do both," they wrote. "The state will continue to be an energy producer for as long as there is a market for fossil fuels, and the revenue that comes from our resources will continue to spur economic growth and support essential public services."

Welle, the lawyer in the Our Children's Trust case, believes that their acknowledgment of the role that climate change plays and their seeming unwillingness to take aggressive action to deal with it helps his case.

"The dissonance that their statements reflects is more than adequate to show their knowledge of the dangers of climate change and their simultaneous commitment to promoting fossil fuel regardless of the consequences to these young plaintiffs," he said.

Freedom from Government Actions that Harm?

Welle and his co-counsel are arguing that the de-facto energy policy in Alaska is unfettered development of oil and gas resources, no matter the impact on the climate. They're arguing that this violates the state's constitution, which "recognizes and preserve the fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty, and property without due process of law," according to court documents.

The case is now in the hands of the judge, who has six months to rule on whether to dismiss the case or allow it to continue to trial. A similar case in Washington state has been given a trial date, as has the federal case.

Elizarde, who will head to college in the fall, hopes the case raises awareness about how her state is being affected by climate change.

"We're talking about climate change and we're seeing all these impacts, but at the same time we're continuing to pursue activities that create climate change," she said. "I hope that this pushes the Walker administration and future administrations to look at this case and understand what a big problem climate change can be."

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