Climate change: What’s next

As Washington, D.C. greets Pope Francis this week, there is much anticipation about what he will say about a number of issues – specifically climate change.  While some members of Congress have already announced they will boycott the Pope’s speech because of his comments on climate change, I hope that folks will reflect on the president’s recent trip to Alaska and understand the urgency of this issue.

All you had to do was turn on your television or check Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter recently to see that President Obama made an historic visit to Alaska earlier this month. The late summer weather along with our breathtaking landscapes provided the perfect backdrop for the president’s trip around my unique state.

While I knew there would be no shortage of photo opportunities while the president was here, I admit I was skeptical about what exactly this trip would really mean for Alaska. The chatter in the days leading up to his arrival was enough to give you a serious case of whiplash.

If you listened to conservative talk radio then you might be convinced the president was going to end resource development forever. If you listened to extremist protesters, then you might be convinced the president was going to drill any and everywhere in Alaska with no regard for any living thing. You know the conspiracy theories are really flying when even Sarah Palin decides to throw in her two cents.

I was proud, however, to see the majority of Alaskans greet the president with the respect and excitement that a visiting Commander in Chief deserves. Whether or not you agree with his politics, the president’s visit was a rare opportunity to put Alaska and our issues front and center on the world’s stage.

And while many in the Lower 48 may still struggle to grasp just how large Alaska is or where it is on a map (not in a box below California and next to Hawaii by the way), the truth is that Alaska will be a critical component of this country’s all-of-the-above energy plan not only for today, but as we transition to alternative energy sources.

I commend the president for prioritizing the need to deal with climate change.  As an Alaskan, I was especially pleased to see the administration take the time to travel and see what the impacts of climate change truly mean here at home.

But what happens now?

While D.C. doesn’t always listen to what Alaskans think our state needs, this trip seems to be an exception.  After seeing the incredible damage caused by climate change to villages all over the state, Obama has reinvigorated the Denali Commission to lead the state’s climate resilience and adaptation efforts.  While it’s still a federal agency, the Denali Commission was designed specifically to help Alaskans face their unique challenges.  And how we address climate change in this state will be no different.

Alaskans also know that if we wait for every skeptic of climate change to get on board before taking action, it will be too late. We must be proactive and take charge of our energy needs.

Access to clean energy means allowing communities to take ownership of their futures.  If villages aren’t sending half of their wages out on the diesel barge, just imagine the financial opportunities this might appear: opening up a small business, saving for education, and increasing access to better infrastructure are just a few.

Upon his return to D.C., Obama announced a new initiative called Clean Energy Solutions for Remote Communities bringing Alaskans together with people all over the country to come up with new ways to pay for clean energy projects. He also announced a new $4 million Department of Energy-led competition for rural communities to help improve energy efficiency.

The president and Secretary of State Kerry are also taking this message to the international community.  Alaskans are not the only Arctic residents suffering from high energy costs. Our neighbors in Russia, Canada, and even Greenland share similar challenges. This presents an opportunity for collaboration, but also a huge business market for clean energy practitioners in Alaska who lead the world in understanding the technical challenges associated with putting renewable energy on a small grid. The State Department is using our Arctic Council Chairmanship to shine a light on what could be a great business opportunity for Alaskans.

All of this will build on the important progress we have already made towards increasing the balance between responsible resource development and investing in alternative energy. That is why I worked closely with the administration during my time in the Senate to move along the permitting process in the Arctic. Today, we are the closest we have ever been to developing the billions of barrels of oil and trillion cubic feet of natural gas located there.

In addition, the administration provided an exemption to Alaska’s five coal plants due to our high energy costs, providing balance between the need for clean energy and affordable energy. Stimulus funds also helped develop the Fire Island Wind Energy Project that now provides 5 percent of Southcentral Alaska’s energy needs. These are just some of the projects across Alaska bringing wind, tidal, hydro and new technologies together.

It is no secret that the president and I have disagreed on a number of issues – and I haven’t been shy about saying so. But you don’t need to agree with all of the president’s policies to recognize that we must act now on climate change or it will continue to pose a serious threat to our environment, economy, and overall national security. It is time to come together, focus on what is possible, and make sure our children and the generations after them can continue to enjoy this planet just as we have.

Read the full editorial here.