The following commentary by Penny Gage is posted here with permission, following publishing by the Anchorage Daily News on October 26, 2022
When it comes to the election next month, I’m concerned that not enough Alaska candidates are talking about what they see as a path forward for our state, especially when it comes to our role in a changing climate. Campaign rhetoric at too many levels is about the past: old industries, old fiscal arrangements, old ideas for what our state can be or promises about returning to past glories.
A stale approach to leading our state isn’t going to cut it any more, at least not for me — and, I hope, not for you.
Most Alaska politicians will concede that the climate is changing, but from there, perspectives diverge wildly – from the pragmatic and prepared to the opaque, avoidant or dishonest.
Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, undeclared or even uninterested, if the candidates running to represent you don’t have something substantial to say on climate, that should be a problem. It means, among other things, they don’t have anything to say on the economy, on fiscal realities or on Alaska’s future. It means you shouldn’t take them seriously, and certainly shouldn’t give them your vote.
This is a big election year: we have a new voting system for statewide races, 59 out of 60 legislators are running for office, and two-thirds of our Congressional delegation is being determined. We’re also at an inflection point in history with unprecedented federal spending on climate action and financial incentives through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS and Science Act. And much of that money will be distributed through state governments. In the weeks ahead, we have the opportunity to start changing our state’s unfortunate economic pattern of boom and bust and start making a plan for the future that doesn’t ignore global realities and places us in a position of strength in the inevitable energy transition. We need to elect leaders who can get us there.
I am a lifelong Alaskan, raised in the Southeast communities of Pelican and Sitka. I am Lingít from my mother’s side and grew up in the place where her family has always been, eating the same wild foods and breathing the same salty air as my ancestors. Despite my connection to culture and history, transition and change have also always been a part of my life, and that of our state’s economy.
Even since Russian colonization, Alaska’s been dogged by a boom and bust dynamic in its economy, and Southeast is no exception. Russian fur traders hunted sea otters to near-extinction. Later came the timber industry. The pulp mill in Sitka closed in 1993 as a result of global competition, rising timber prices and historic lows in world pulp prices, just as petroleum started replacing wood-products in the manufacture of plastics and rayon. In a town of 8,800, 400 millworkers lost their jobs. And even though I was too young to understand what was happening, the community discussion and ramifications of the closure are etched in my mind. I grew up knowing that the seemingly solid ground our economy was built on was precarious; that parents’ jobs could go away, and with them my friends at school as families moved elsewhere.
Now in my 30s, I see a similar change happening in our state as global markets turn away from high carbon-emitting sources of energy and toward a more sustainable future. Capital is retreating from the very oil and gas sector that has provided Alaska with tremendous economic opportunity and development. No amount of rhetorical saber-rattling from Juneau or Anchorage is bringing it back. It’s time to position Alaska for the future.
As a millennial, I’m part of what some have called the “post-pipeline generation.” And now I’m more attuned to the reasons why, and how we can proactively approach an ever-changing world. In my professional work, I support high-growth companies in the vast, exciting sector of “climate tech” — technologies that mitigate or remove greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions, or help us adapt to, reduce, or understand climate change impacts. Their products and services help decarbonize — removal or reduction of carbon dioxide output — and electrify — switching to use of electricity as a source of energy — our systems and technologies, with the aim of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
Though this is not decarbonization for decarbonization’s sake, or solely altruism and thinking of future generations. These companies are working to capture an economic opportunity worth trillions presented by a changing climate. 128 country governments with $83 trillion in GDP and global companies with $6.3 trillion in 2019 annual revenues have adopted net zero targets. A recent estimate of the potential spending on climate over the next 10 years through the Inflation Reduction Act alone is $1.7 trillion, due to widespread usage of tax credits and associated private investment. Whether you’re a “drill baby, drill” person, a greenie, or just looking for a job, you can see that the economic opportunity and momentum of this moment is real.
And why shouldn’t Alaska lead in this transition?
Because Arctic and high-latitude parts of the globe are warming so much faster than more temperate locations, the imperative to adjust our catastrophic trajectory is clearer. Even the most politically conservative Alaskans live close enough to the land, waters and animals to acknowledge the rapid changes afoot.
We are a largely nonpartisan place; more than 60% of Alaskans don’t identify as Republicans or Democrats. Despite the popular culture narrative and the “red state” history, I see Alaska as a unique place to model what it looks like to transition an oil and gas state into the energy and economic model of the future. A place to align our elected officials with our population’s priorities and political leanings.
So how am I making my choices for the voting booth? I’m reading candidates’ websites to see if energy or climate are mentioned, and what is said. I’m keeping an eye out for “greenwashing,” where misinformation is deceptively used to portray a solution, policy stance, or commitment as environmentally friendly when it in fact may be far from it. When I meet candidates at events, I’m asking them where they see our state in 10 or 50 years and what jobs Alaskans will have in that new world. How will we be prepared for the low-carbon markets of the future? What color hydrogen should we place our bets on? How will Alaska’s university system and technical centers be resourced to train students for the jobs we’ll need? I’m asking candidates what questions they have about climate tech and how they’re educating themselves on these topics, and offering to help connect them to answers.
While economics will determine the pace of this energy transition in many ways, there are important steps our elected officials at all levels from local to tribal to national can take to help steer the conversation, resources, and priorities toward a decarbonized future. If policymakers aren’t involved, the benefits of this new economy and transition will not accrue equally across our society and many will be left out. It is the responsibility of those who hold power to ensure that the policies and regulations of our state help steer those benefits toward all of Alaska.
I’m not urging you to be a single issue voter this year on the climate, but instead asking you to see that this is an every issue concern. If you have any intention of growing old here, raising kids in Alaska, or simply care about the future of our state, who we elect in November matters, perhaps more than ever before. I hope the people we elect next month represent a clear-eyed and proactive approach to the energy transition to benefit all Alaskans.
Originally from Sitka, Penny Gage lives in Anchorage and is the managing director at Launch Alaska. She’s passionate about entrepreneurship and diversification of the state economy.