Voices of Alaska: Adding an Alaskan voice to climate change discussion

An Alaska politician told me recently that I have no power. I think he said it to explain away my frustration or perhaps he was offering condolences. I’m not clear if his perception of my powerlessness comes from me being a women, a scientist, or Alaskan concerned about climate change. In all cases, he’s wrong: it’s not that I have no power, it’s that I am not using my power effectively.

I’ve spent much of the last 18 years since I arrived in Alaska hanging around salmon streams. I study them; I feel connected to this northern landscape through them. I know their seasonal rhythms. Salmon have shown me the complex relationship Alaskans have with their natural resources. In Alaska we are currently pursuing expanding our fossil fuel extraction and we are experiencing the greatest amount of climate changing impacts in the country. We seem to take pride in poking the bear.

Although denial, inertia, and greed have stymied any real action on mitigating our carbon emissions, Alaskans are practical people and are willing to sit down to talk about ways to adapt to the obvious changes happening on our landscape and oceans. It’s clear that each community will need to do its own risk assessment and preparedness plan for the changes ahead. No federal agency is going to swoop in and apply a blanket solution to our local problems. So the irony is not lost on me that I now pack for a trip which will take me 6,000 miles away – lots of carbon emissions – to talk about climate at the other end of the world when I already know the answer will be local.

I leave in a week to join 80 other women to take part in Homeward Bound – a global leadership initiative for women in science. This 12-month program develops leadership, communication, visibility and strategic capabilities and culminates in a journey to the Antarctic Peninsula. Over the next decade, the Homeward Bound vision is to equip a 1,000-strong collaboration of women to lead, influence and contribute to policy and decision-making as it informs the future of our planet. I’m going so that I can add my voice, informed by Alaska-based science and grounded in our Alaskan stories, to the global conversation about climate change action.

But I also am a realist and know that timing and opportunity play important roles in our willingness to take action. And the timing is good as Governor Walker has finally taken a step to address the very real and rapidly accelerating impacts of climate change on Alaskans and our way of life. The Governor established the Alaska Climate Change Strategy and the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team to advise him on “critical and timely actions to address climate change challenges that will safeguard Alaska now and for future generation”. I hope the Governor and Alaskans will head this advice and find the leadership and courage to take real action.

As I head south for 5 weeks, I am inspired to work with women from around the world who are itching to be the change we seek. And my frustration gives way as I realize that power comes from within and power comes from hope. No politician can take those things from me. I just need to be more effective at harnessing my power.

You can follow my journey and learn more about Homeward Bound at: www.homewardboundprojects.com.au

Sue Mauger is Science Director at Cook Inletkeeper and lives in Homer.

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