As environmental science students at the University of Alaska Southeast and residents of Juneau, we spend a lot of time studying climate change. Like many residents of Juneau, we have observed climate change in action, from the accelerating rate of recession of the Mendenhall Glacier to the trend of increasing precipitation in the form of rain during the winter. Throughout our lives, we have followed social, economic, cultural and scientific issues closely, becoming passionate and well-versed in many subjects. From our earliest days of learning about it, climate change stood out as a majorly important and urgent issue, and it is a primary factor motivating us to pursue degrees in environmental science.
With every class in the subject on the environment, we have become more aware of climate change and its multifaceted impacts. For our generation, as well as younger generations, climate change is a major force in both our present and future. However, it falls upon the entire living population to tackle this issue. Disappointingly, as proven by the recent proceedings at the United Nations Conference of Parties 26 in Glasgow, world leaders have again fallen short of doing so.
COP26 was meant to mark a paradigm shift for climate change governance, given that the 2015 Paris Agreement pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were neither ambitious enough nor being met. Indeed, COP26 is the first U.N. climate agreement to specifically mention fossil fuels and calls on countries to strengthen their climate initiatives by the end of 2022 with more aggressive emissions reductions. Yet, the resulting Glasgow Climate Pact, in contrast to the Paris Agreement, is not legally binding. The Pact also shows how ambition for net-zero emissions gets watered down, such as when the draft provision to “phase out” coal was opposed by India and China and ultimately diluted to the more nebulous “phase down.”
Policymakers’ failures to reach meaningful climate action agreements have set a poor precedent for our and future generations. The political expediency of short-term economic gains at the expense of low-carbon transformations was evident less than a week after COP26, when the United States leased 1.7 million acres for the purpose of offshore oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. This is predicted to lead to emissions with the annual equivalent of 130 coal-fired power plants, according to the Center of Biological Diversity. Industrial nations’ reliance on fossil fuels threatens environmental sustainability and human well-being. For example, the air quality in Delhi, India, now regularly reaches a level 10 times higher than the safe level according to the National Air Quality Index, due to vehicle emissions, coal-fired power plants, and crop burning. Such harmful environmental change is quick to develop and does not wait for our environmental governance ambitions to check humanity’s reckless growth. Yet policymakers continue to fall short when attempting to properly address such problems.
The inadequacies of the international COP26 meeting highlight the role that local and regional entities can play in filling gaps in climate change policy. As fossil fuels continue to be phased down, we believe that Alaska, as a fossil fuel exporting state, must look at ways to adapt to the changing world economy with the prospect of becoming a leader in renewable energy innovation, design and production. For example, Alaska has the means to develop hydrogen fuel resources, which may be important during our transition towards a net-zero carbon future in which renewable energy resources such as hydropower and tidal power, play larger roles in producing electricity in our state. In addition, we need to continue to expand geothermal, wind and solar options and to consider ecological mitigation tools such as terrestrial (by way of trees) and aquatic (by way of seaweed/kelp) carbon sequestration. Alaska’s sustainability success in the face of climate change is dependent on whether we grasp the urgency of the situation, adapt and become more resilient while supporting environmental and socioeconomic sustainability.
John Seymour and Charles Thorpe are environmental science students at the University of Alaska Southeast and live in Juneau. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Alaska Southeast.