Republican Sweep Highlights Climate Change Politics In Alaska | KUOW News and Information

Republican Sweep Highlights Climate Change Politics In Alaska

Nov 6, 2014
Originally published on November 6, 2014 8:15 am

On election night in a hotel ballroom in Anchorage, Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski picked up a chair and waved it over her head.

"I am the chairmaaaaaaaaaaan!" she shouted.

The Republican takeover Tuesday night puts Murkowski in charge of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That's great news for Alaska, which is always eager for the feds to allow more oil drilling up here. But what does her chairmanship mean for the other side of that coin — global warming?

At that same election-night party, Murkowski said she takes climate change seriously.

"I come from a state where we see a warming. We're seeing it with increased water temperatures; we're seeing it with ice that is thinner; we're seeing it with migratory patterns that are changing," she said. "So I look at this and I say this is something that we must address."

But does she mean we should address the cause of global warming? Hard to say, since she's apparently not so sure what the cause is — or whether mankind is to blame. She mentioned a volcano she had heard about in Iceland.

"The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years' worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe," she said.

"What can I say?" wonders Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, a leading expert on climate change. "It's simply untrue. I don't know where she gets that number from."

Oppenheimer says it's actually the other way around: Annual emissions from Europe are 10 times bigger than the annual emissions of all volcanoes put together. And he says the argument misses a bigger point: Humans are adding carbon dioxide to what was a balanced system.

"So not only is the number wrong, but the context is highly deceptive," he says.

But casting doubt on mankind's role kind of makes sense in Alaska — a place where the warming itself is becoming too hard to ignore.

In the very same hotel where the Republicans had their victory party, there is a climate change conference going on. It's a conference for land managers who are dealing with global warming right now: They're talking about things like what to do when melting permafrost moves your sewer pipes and water runs the wrong way. This isn't a conference about stopping global warming — it's about living with it.

Scientist Scott Rupp of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks admits that Alaskans tend to avoid talking about the cause.

"You know, that's a tough thing for a place like Alaska," he says. "I mean, there's no way of getting around the pragmatic fact that we depend on fossil fuels for the majority of our state budget. We also experience the highest energy prices anywhere in the country."

Rupp says talking about the cause politicizes things.

"But if we stick to the impact part of things, which is part of the equation of living in Alaska — and has been for 10, 20 years now — you can kind of side-step that," he adds.

On the forefront of global warming, Alaska and its politicians have settled into a kind of acceptance. Instead of arguing about causes, they've decided to concentrate on trying to adapt.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Leaders of the two parties have spent the last couple of days listing areas of potential common ground. When they do, climate change does not come up. The president wants to reduce it. Key Republicans in the Senate have insisted the overwhelming majority of experts are wrong about it. And Republicans are also suspicious of big-government answers. For clues to the GOP's intentions on global warming, you can look to Alaska. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: On election night in a hotel ballroom in Anchorage, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski picked up a chair and waved it over her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR LISA MURKOWSKI: (Yelling) I am the chairman.

KASTE: The Republican takeover puts Murkowski in charge of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That's great news for Alaska. It's all as eager for the feds to allow more oil drilling up here, but what does her chairmanship mean for the other side of that coin - global warming? At that same election night party, Murkowski said she does take climate change seriously.

MURKOWSKI: I come from a state where we see - we see a warming. We're seeing it with increased water temperatures. We're seeing it with ice that is thinner. We're seeing it with migratory patterns that are changing. So I look at this, and I say, this is something that we must address.

KASTE: But does she mean we should address the cause of global warming? That's hard to say because she's apparently not so sure what that cause is or that mankind is to blame. She mentions a volcano she heard about in Iceland.

MURKOWSKI: The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years' worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe.

KASTE: It's kind of hard to hear her in that noisy room, so just to be clear, what Senator Murkowski said was this - one volcano in Iceland equals - and I'm quoting here - "a thousand years' worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles and all of the manufacturing in Europe."

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: What can I say?

KASTE: This is Princeton Professor Michael Oppenheimer, a leading expert on climate change.

OPPENHEIMER: It's simply untrue. I don't know where she gets that number from.

KASTE: Oppenheimer says it's actually the other way around. Annual emissions from Europe are 10 times bigger than the annual emissions of all the volcanoes put together. And he says the argument misses a bigger point - humans are adding carbon dioxide to what was a balanced system.

OPPENHEIMER: So not only is the number wrong, but the context is highly deceptive.

KASTE: But casting doubt on mankind's role kind of makes sense in Alaska, a place where the warming itself is becoming too hard to ignore.

SCOTT RUPP: The system is actually very robust to...

KASTE: This is a climate change conference in the very same hotel where the Republicans had their victory party. It's a conference for land managers who are dealing with global warming right now. They're talking about things like what to do when the melting permafrost moves your sewer pipes and the water runs the wrong way. This isn't a conference about stopping global warming. It's about living with it. Scott Rupp is a scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He admits Alaskans tend to avoid talking about the cause.

RUPP: You know, that's a tough thing for a place like Alaska. I mean, there's no way of getting around the pragmatic fact that we depend on fossil fuels for the majority of our state budget. We also experience the highest energy prices anywhere in the country.

KASTE: He says focusing on the cause of global warming just politicizes things.

RUPP: But if we stick to the impacts part of things, which is part of the equation of living in Alaska, and it has been for 10, 20 years now, we can kind of sidestep that.

KASTE: On the forefront of global warming, Alaska and its politicians have settled into a kind of acceptance. Instead of arguing about the causes, they've decided to concentrate on just trying to adapt. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.