Voices of the Peninsula: Alaska youth push for action on climate change

  • By JODE SPARKS
  • Wednesday, October 4, 2017 10:52am
  • Opinion

On August 28th Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA) and 15 youth from across Alaska delivered a rulemaking petition to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). It was an unusually sunny day in downtown Anchorage when my friend Kaitlin, from Utqiagvik, walked into the DEC building to present the envelope to the front desk. With the petition delivered, we held a press conference in front of the office. There were three speeches (each written and delivered by other youth like me from around Alaska) and individual interviews with statewide newspapers and TV stations. Suddenly, we were told that DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig was available to meet with us. During our discussion, we explained the contents of the petition: we were asking the DEC to 1. Adopt a Climate Action Plan; 2. Annually inventory Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions and; 3. Reduce those emissions in-state according to the best climate science. We left the meeting feeling confident that our message had gotten through.

The next day I was happy to get my picture in the paper and thrilled that a state official had finally listened to us. That’s why on September 27th I was shocked to hear that the DEC had rejected our petition.

Alaska’s young people are more than ever feeling the effects of a changing climate. Thawing permafrost, receding glaciers, coastal erosion, and melting sea ice are just a few examples of the changes already impacting communities, cultures, and economies across the state. The problems that they are causing are expected to become even worse unless bold action is taken.

I live on the Kenai Peninsula, one of the southern-most areas of our state, and I still struggle with climate change’s impacts. My family came to Alaska to mush; I remember only a few years ago when we had more than 30 dogs. Now, with less and less snow every year, it feels like an exercise in futility. Even more distressing is the fact that there has been a major wildfire near my house every summer for the past 3 summers putting more and more homes and businesses on the Kenai Peninsula at-risk every year. While my peers and I are experiencing climate differently, we share a common reality: we are young Alaskans who can understand that the Earth is changing and who are asking, demanding, and imploring our leaders to take action. But once again, our requests fall on deaf ears.

We didn’t start with the DEC and Commissioner Hartig. Over a decade ago, in 2006, AYEA teens collected 5,000 petitions from their peers in over 150 villages and cities, asking local, state, and federal leaders for climate action. In 2014, we delivered 3,500 more petitions asking Governor Bill Walker to simply re-establish the climate change task force created during the Palin administration. For 3 years in a row we’ve met with Governor Walker and Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott about climate change and for 3 years in a row we have been told to expect an announcement “soon.” I’ve personally advocated for climate action in the state legislature, the body that Commissioner Hartig suggested we “reach out to” in his letter of denial, and seen little to no action taken. We’ve worked towards a solution by asking our leaders politely and haven’t seen results. By submitting the petition, we did what our leaders have not: we led the way on climate change.

By rejecting the petition, the DEC let down our state. According to their own website, the DEC’s duty is “Conserving, improving, and protecting Alaska’s natural resources and environment to enhance the health, safety, economic, and social well-being of Alaskans.” By failing to act on climate change, the DEC is failing to fulfill that duty. Their decision to remain passive could have devastating consequences for our future and for Alaska’s. The DEC’s rejection of this petition was a mistake.

But my fellow petitioners and I are not giving up. This week I am participating in a climate change discussion organized by Lt. Governor Mallott and his staff, and I look forward to meaningful action from the Walker administration. Stopping climate change is a necessity, but it is also an opportunity to develop renewable resources, lower energy costs, and build healthier communities statewide. If our leaders act now, Alaska can lead the way for the rest of the world. For the sake of my generation and those to follow, I urge Alaskans to contact their elected officials and demand action on climate change now.

AYEA and all of Alaska’s passionate youth will continue the fight. We will continue to push for climate action that follows the best science available. We will continue to work with those who are courageous enough to stand up and do the right thing, and we will continue to hold our state leaders accountable. Will you?

Jode Sparks is a Youth Trainer with Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), from Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula. He is 17 years old and is starting his senior year at Soldotna High School. He plans on pursuing an environmentally-focused career in economics, public policy, or education.

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