Texas and Alaska Share a Frontier Spirit – A Good Thing for Climate Action

alaska-pixabayRecently I spoke about the energy-water nexus at the American Water Resources Association spring conference in Anchorage, Alaska. As a Texan in Alaska, I had my first taste of getting what we give: Texans like to walk and talk big, but a lunchtime speaker joked that Texas was “cute” and noted how if you halved Alaska, Texas would be the third largest state.

Alaska and Texas are often mentioned in the same breath: two behemoth states, heavily influenced by oil and a rugged individualism. During my adventure, I posted pictures or status updates of things that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in Texas and tagged them #texasoralaska – things like overheard conversation about seasonal oil work, wind turbines next to oil ports, and a strong liking for local game and seafood (reindeer versus venison, King crab versus Gulf shrimp).

In both states, you hear people talking about changing weather patterns. The man next to me on the plane to Anchorage said they only had two “bad” days of winter and temperatures hit a remarkable 70 degrees in March. The boat captain said red salmon were starting to arrive about three weeks early this year. This sounds remarkably similar to conversations I’ve had with people in Texas about severe drought, hotter summers, and extreme floods that seem to be occurring more frequently.

In the face of a changing climate, tangible impacts are affecting Texans and Alaskans now – usually the most vulnerable groups. These massive states show why we need to prioritize climate action. Despite Alaska and Texas’ close ties to oil, I am hopeful their underlying frontier spirit can help them be better prepared for a warmer future.

Texas and Alaska’s residents are already suffering as a result of climate change

I saw the most dramatic physical evidence of climate impacts on my Kenai Peninsula boat trip when we passed by Bear Glacier. This glacier marks the start of Kenai Fjords National Park, and it’s the largest glacier in the park at 13 miles long. Before I went I jokingly referred to it as the “melting glacier tour,” but it wasn’t so funny when I saw the evidence: This magnificent natural feature is receding rapidly.

With increasing average annual temperatures between the 1950s and 1990s, Bear Glacier retreated about one mile, creating a lagoon. But between 2000 and 2007, the glacier retreated an additional two miles, calving and creating floating icebergs in the lagoon. And in 2014, an outburst flood led to the lagoon overflowing into Resurrection Bay – likely a case of climate change exacerbating current climate and weather events.

Similarly, Houston has recently suffered through the second round of fatal floods in less than a year. Houston’s sprawl has left the already-flood-prone city more vulnerable to heavy rainfall runoff, especially from the development of wetlands, which would otherwise act as a barrier. And Houston is expecting another 3.4 million people to move to the city in the next 25 years. Moreover, as a coastal city, Houston is staring down the barrel of rising seas and intense storms, with climate change acting as an enhancing force on these natural cycles (climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has described it as putting our weather on steroids).

There is a direct impact of these events on people. Alaska is likely to see the first American climate refugees. The 400-person town of Kivalina and neighboring 350-strong Newtok, home to Inupiat and Yupik people, respectively, need to be moved because, according to U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, they are “washing away.” The monetary costs are estimated at $100-200 million per village (and 29 more are listed as in imminent danger), but the cultural and social costs to the families that must be uprooted from their homes is immeasurable.

Likewise, Texas’ recent floods and droughts have hit the most vulnerable communities the hardest. For example, in the Greenspoint area in Houston, more than one in three residents lives below the Federal Poverty Level. The area, of which over half is in a flood zone, was one of the worst hit in recent storms. When the next big flood arrives, it and other low-income communities in flood zones will likely bear the brunt of damage again. A recent Texas Monthly article asked, “Is Houston Sustainable?” It’s a complicated question with no easy answer.

Texas and Alaska’s attitudes can overcome oil challenges

The oil part of the equation makes dealing with climate change-related weather impacts even thornier. Both states’ budgets rely heavily on oil revenues, and both states have always been challenged by the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry. After the last bust, Texas undertook efforts to reduce its reliance on oil revenues. In 2014, 90 percent of Alaska’s state budget came from the industry; in 2015 it received only 75 percent – a huge loss resulting from the recent oil price tumble.

It’s more than merely numbers and revenue in these two states. Oil also represents jobs, livelihoods, history, and culture. But the reality is, heavy reliance on oil is no longer sustainable—economically or environmentally. The oil reserves that remain untapped are more expensive and more complicated to access. Many leaders decry the effect of climate policies on the economy, but, arguably, low oil prices and reduced petroleum reserves actually pose a greater challenge to these two states. Tapping these reserves also risks intensifying the already accelerated climate change trends.

Fortunately, one of the hallmarks of these two frontier-spirited states is adaptability. In order to thrive in the harsh Texas summers or Alaska winters, you have to be adaptable. So, diversify and take pride in both states’ incredible natural resources and can-do spirit. For example, embracing cleaner energy sources is one way to prepare for a more resilient future. Texas is already the country’s wind energy leader and the number one state for solar potential. Looking out the airplane window coming into Anchorage, I saw rows of majestic wind turbines spinning while snow-covered mountains loomed in the background.

Whether you’re heading north to The Last Frontier or south to The Lone Star State, it’s clear climate action is needed now. An adaptable, frontier, and can-do attitude could help these states’ vulnerable populations and beyond prepare for a safer, healthier future.

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  1. Posted May 10, 2016 at 3:37 PM | Permalink

    Texas is all about cars, oil and anti-intellectual employment pragmatism; the least likely people to have any environmental zoning discipline. Dallas’ sprawl reaches north to within 35 miles of the Red River and Oklahoma. Alaska politicians are unimaginative dullards bought and paid for by global oil and gas, big banks and so forth. Be reasonable.

  2. Kate Zerrenner Kate Zerrenner
    Posted May 11, 2016 at 2:03 PM | Permalink

    Both states definitely have some roadblocks in addressing climate change, but past experience has shown when a thorny issue arises, we can usually find a solution. Because of the states’ histories and cultures, we could begin to tackle climate challenges – if the citizens and leaders were willing. And since both states are already feeling the effects of climate change, it is in our best interest to harness that frontier spirit. Even against challenging odds, as an advocate in Texas, I remain optimistic that we can get there.