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Feature Story
Photo of the coast of Sarichef Island
Alaska's Meltdown

by Charles Wohlforth

If folks above the 49th Parallel are scared about global warming, they're sure not letting on. Now that's scary.

High-temperature records are being broken so often that the local newspapers barely make note anymore. Last summer, 6.5 million acres of Alaska burned, an area the size of Massachusetts, breaking a 50-year-old record. Smoke hung over a broad swath of the state, and tourists took shelter. Even when the smoke cleared, the forests and cities didn't smell right: They smelled hot, like the Lower 48, not like Alaska. Sea ice withdrawing, catastrophic erosion, glaciers shrinking, melting permafrost, winters warming and shortening: Alaskans are not only losing economically, they are losing their ways of life.

So why aren't they doing anything about it?

Alaska's top political leaders have (at most) called for more study -- while appropriating money to address fires, sunken roads, and storm-damaged villages. A team of 300 scientists completed a four-year Arctic Climate Impact Assessment last November documenting the changes, which, they concluded, were driven largely by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. Alaska's sole representative to Congress, Republican Don Young, immediately dismissed the report. "I don't believe it is our fault," Young said, adding that his opinion is "as sound as any scientist's."

Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, said mandatory emission limits should wait until scientists reach a consensus that human actions are the cause of the warming. But that consensus has already been reached by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last December, Science reported that a database search of 928 peer-reviewed papers on climate change over the past decade found not a single author disputing this consensus.

Photo of the coast of Sarichef Island

But if Alaska's politicians are out of step with science, there's no strong evidence that they are out of step with public opinion. "You would imagine that it would be a fairly compelling issue," says the Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore. But the issue generated no debate during the record hot summer of 2004, when Murkowski and former governor Tony Knowles faced each other in the state's toughest U.S. Senate campaign ever. Moore says, "No one has ever called asking me to do a poll on it. That may tell you something."

For those hoping that a global response to climate change will rise up from the grass roots, the Alaska paradox may be disquieting. Climate change is hitting here first and hardest -- no one denies that something extreme is happening -- but the collective will to act has yet to develop. Instead of running in panic like extras in a disaster movie, Alaskans remain inert before the threat -- either misinformed, politically paralyzed, or in a state of denial.

Or possibly all three. The Alaska paradox may demonstrate the complexity of building the political will to face an enormous, long-term challenge and the patience required to bring along everyone whose help will eventually be needed. Far from not caring about the changes around them, many Alaskans seem to be in a state of shock -- emotionally unable to accept that Alaska is changing forever and overwhelmed by the task of addressing this new reality.

Adding to the inertia is orneriness. Alaskans don't like being told what to do, especially by government, and the most widely touted policy to slow the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions, a "cap-and-trade" system, would require major new regulation. The federal government would set mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions; companies that want to emit more would have to buy credits from those that emit less.

Partisanship also plays a part. Cap-and-trade legislation introduced by Senators John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat, received support from only a handful of Republicans the last time it came up for a vote, in October 2003. And on the blue-and-red political map, Alaska is deep crimson.

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Charles Wohlforth is the author of The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change (North Point Press). He can be reached through his website at www.wohlforth.net.

Photo: John Lingass, NOAA National Weather Service, Fairbanks, Alaska

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council