Alaska’s land, water and communities are facing a climate crisis, and we all know the problem. Surface air temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the rate of average global warming. A hotter, more arid atmosphere is melting the state’s iconic glaciers at a troubling pace, aggravating destructive forest fires. Climate change-induced ocean acidification and warming threaten Alaskan fish, shellfish, and other marine resources. It goes without saying, the degradation of these natural resources is already harming the people who rely on them for subsistence and income.
It’s been clear for a long time Alaska needs a climate plan. Yet its creation has been hindered by the state’s undue dependence on oil and gas. The oil and gas industry supports a quarter of Alaskan jobs throughout the state, and oil and gas tax revenue has totaled $157 billion since 1959. In the 1980’s, when Alaska was producing the most oil in its history, 80-90% of Alaska’s total unrestricted general fund came from fossil fuel taxation.
Due to falling production and low oil prices before the COVID-19 pandemic, oil and gas taxes made up less than 24% of the state’s total revenue in 2019, leaving the state government with a $1.5 billion deficit. The plummeting price of oil and job losses due to the pandemic could expand the deficit an additional $600 million by 2021. As a result, the state’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel taxes today threatens its economic security and environmental health for decades to come.
When oil and gas dominated the economy, Alaskans were forced to choose short-term growth over addressing the long-term consequences of climate change. Now, in the face of insufficient tax revenue and uncertain oil prices, the state has a unique opportunity to diversify its revenue sources and create a more resilient and sustainable economy. Alaska possesses world-class renewable energy assets – including prolific wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal and solar resources – and we and should be leaders in decarbonizing our energy supply and creating new jobs by developing the state’s immense and untapped renewable energy supplies.
To eliminate our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels, however, our politicians must adopt a state-wide plan that 1) justly and empathetically transitions fossil fuel workers to sustainable industries 2) diversifies economic revenue and invests in clean technology 3) helps Alaskans adapt to inevitable climate change impacts and 4) reduces carbon emissions to mitigate against future risks.
The bad news is that Alaska’s state leaders have refused to acknowledge climate change since Governor Dunleavy took office. And Alaskans won’t receive any aid from the federal government because President Trump is a climate change denier.
The good news is that on Tuesday July 14th, former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released a national climate change plan. Biden’s plan would spend $2 trillion over a 4-year period, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s a real plan and would make important progress .
Biden’s plan is rooted in the understanding that low-income communities – including people of color and Alaskan Natives —are disproportionately impacted by climate change. It also affirms that workers in the fossil fuel industry cannot be forgotten as the U.S. transitions to fossil-free energy future.
In order to mitigate the disasters disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities, Biden promises to establish an Office of Environmental and Climate Justice at the Justice Department to address how “environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color.” He wants vulnerable communities to receive 40 percent of the benefits of clean energy investments, and his plan would more strictly monitor and control pollution affecting low income communities near refineries and other polluting facilities.
To address the economic challenge of climate change mitigation, Biden supports the Coal Transition Platform published by the Just Transition Fund which aids communities’ transition away from a reliance on coal mining. These carbon-reduction goals are part of a larger economic-development program to invest in more efficient zero-emissions mass transit, rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, promote sustainable union jobs, and achieve a more resilient and carbon-free power grid by 2035 by investing in renewable energy resources.
Biden will finance the plan by increasing tax rates on individuals with incomes above $400,000 to 39.6% from 37% and raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. Biden’s tax rates may appear unnecessarily high compared to recent years; however, the U.S. experienced its greatest economic boom and largest reduction in inequality in the 1950’s, when the corporate income tax rate was over 50% and individuals earning over $200,000 paid a marginal tax rate of 92%.
Biden’s climate change plan is good news for Alaskans in this moment of change. It is constructed to overcome the tension between fossil fuel dependence and environmental justice facing Alaska and many other states. It also brings hope for much-needed federal financing and guidance to address a looming climate catastrophe.
Despite the plan’s nuanced and progressive framing, the plan is not perfect for Alaskans. For example, it does not acknowledge the state’s disproportionate environmental and cultural fragility in the face of climate change. And, there is no promise that Joe Biden will work with Alaskans specifically to resolve the conflicting needs of the fishing/tourism industries, natural resources protection, and Native people on the one hand, and fossil fuel workers and state revenues on the other. Instead, he appears focused on Appalachian coal mining communities in politically powerful swing-states.
As the influence of oil and gas revenues in Alaska wanes, Alaskans have an incredible opportunity to seize on this moment to remake our economy around an energy system that’s more sustainable and resilient – without the boom and bust convulsions that come from our reliance on fossil fuels.
Biden’s climate plan is one way forward. And while we’ll need our political leaders to act at the local, state and federal levels, we know they won’t unless and until Alaskans demand action.
So take the time to read Biden’s climate plan, send it to your elected leaders, and tell them that doing nothing on climate change is not an option. Because the impacts from climate change will not go away just because the climate deniers won’t recognize facts and science.
By Ariel Silverman, Cook Inletkeeper Intern