Obama Helps Alaskans Help Themselves Fight Climate Change

by | September 3, 2015 AT 11:00 AM

By Erica Martinson

The White House on Wednesday announced new efforts and funding to encourage energy efficiency in remote villages and the appointment of a federal coordinator for “climate resilience” in Alaska, in conjunction with President Barack Obama's trip to Kotzebue.

The announcement comes on the heels of several others as the president travels around Alaska pushing for clean energy and dealing with a changing climate.

The whole package offered up by the Obama administration Wednesday includes more than $20 million in new funding through grants and other routes, and a few reminders of money long flowing into the state from the federal government.

The announcement elicited both skepticism and hope from Kotzebue-area tribal members who were hoping to talk climate change with the president later that day.

“It’s going to help us a little bit,” but it may not go far, said Percy Ballot, tribal government president in Buckland, where homes and buildings are increasingly threatened by erosion.

That’s a problem faced by a dozen communities in the region, including the well-known Kivalina, which has lost much of its land to the Chukchi Sea, tribal members said at a press conference early Wednesday.

Relocating a community can cost more than $100 million -- far short of the funding offered by the federal government Wednesday.

“It’s a start,” said Diane Ramoth, vice chair of the Selawik tribal government. “The administration needs to realistically think what it’s going to cost to help our communities that are impacted.”

As the first sitting president to venture north of the Arctic Circle, Obama hopes to highlight the ongoing impacts of climate change -- shifting the conversation away from whether it’s happening to how to deal with it.

“Alaska Native traditions that have set the rhythm of life in Alaska for thousands of years are being upended by decreasing sea-ice cover and changing seasonal patterns. Permafrost is melting, opening up sinkholes and causing damage to homes and infrastructure,” the White House said in a statement released Wednesday.

That’s certainly true in places like the village of Newtok, one of many in Alaska threatened by a changing climate.

Obama’s plans to help are modest but more than nothing -- helping communities prepare, mitigate and understand what’s coming next.

The Interior Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have released a “U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit” to help gather information for communities facing a changing climate.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Wednesday that “by sharing climate data among nations, we are providing tools that may be useful in increasing resilience measures across national boundaries in the Arctic."

The agency plans to update the toolkit with information specific to tribal nations, Jewell said.

“Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, melting glaciers and sea ice are having significant impacts on critical infrastructure and traditional livelihoods for tribes in Alaska and across Indian country,” said Kevin Washburn, Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs. “That means climate change not only affects tribal livelihood, but it also affects access to vital resources and the cultural integrity of communities. We are committed to working with tribal leaders to help build more resilient Native communities in the face of a changing climate."

The administration also announced a slew of efforts to map Alaska and the Arctic.

On the ground in Alaska, the Denali Commission will get a lead role in coordinating many of Obama’s new promises for federal help. If villages are going to relocate, they’ll do so with help of the Denali Commission and in some cases the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which Obama established in January.

The Denali Commission is politically unpopular in some pockets of Congress, where lawmakers have held it up as a symbol of the government middleman, but Alaska’s legislators have kept it alive. The controversy stems from the commission’s inspector general Mike Marsh, who wrote to Congress in 2013 to say his agency “is a congressional experiment that hasn't worked out in practice.”

It remains to be seen how well the commission will be funded in the upcoming year -- and if Congress actually passes a budget. Obama requested $14 million for fiscal year 2016, but it’s likely to get something closer to $10 million.

Meanwhile, the administration piled up the grant money in its Wednesday announcement.

The Department of Agriculture offered up 33 new grants to improve rural water systems, for a total of $17.6 million, plus $240,000 in cooperative agreements with Native nonprofit groups to improve housing, community facilities, wastewater systems and broadband access. USDA will continue supporting grants to high-energy-cost households in rural Alaska, to the tune of roughly $8 million in grants this year. The program has paid over $48 million in grants to rural Alaska since 2009, the White House said.

NOAA will spend $300,000 on Alaska climate adaptation efforts.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is offering up $1.38 million for its program supporting tribal youth internships directly related to climate change impacts.

The Department of Energy will spend $4 million on an initiative to help remote Alaskan communities adopt sustainable energy policies.

And the Federal Emergency Management Agency will start working on guidance for tribes who want to request disaster declarations to receive federal funding for help.

Ramoth, of the Selawik tribal government, said flooding is a problem in Selawik and fish are having trouble spawning.

“I do believe our government can take care of our very own people,” she said. “This is a very, very dire situation we’re in.”

And while the funding won’t go entirely to Alaska Natives, the Energy Department launched a new project spending $6 million on clean energy projects on Indian lands.

Dominic Ivanoff, vice chair of the Kotzebue tribal government, said he was happy to hear about the $4 million competitive grant program from the Department of Energy, aimed at boosting energy efficiency and clean energy in Alaskan villages.

He’s a board member for the Kotzebue Electric Association, which operates 19 wind turbines, producing about 20 percent of the city’s power, and saving close to $1 million last year, he said. The association wants to expand into solar power and the competition may help, he said.

“We got diagrams and groundwork on that and we just needed grants or funding to move forward,” Ivanoff said.

Alex Demarban contributed to this story.