Home Statewide Politics It’s Getting Hot in Here: Joe Miller and a Climate Change Firestorm

It’s Getting Hot in Here: Joe Miller and a Climate Change Firestorm

Joe Miller Photo by Ryan McFarland, www.zieak.com
Photo of Joe Miller by Ryan McFarland, www.zieak.com, used under Creative Commons license

Joe Miller, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Mark Begich (D-Alaska), recently ratcheted up the rhetoric on climate change. His position should be of extreme interest in Alaska, ground zero for climate impact.

On May 17, Miller released a statement saying that his Republican opponents, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, “have joined with climate change alarmists to push for top-down federal regulation.” Miller quoted both Sullivan and Treadwell acknowledging climate change. In contrast, Miller cited a Geophysical Institute study on Alaska temperature and a Fox News story about Arctic sea ice to discount climate change.

Before we get into the discussion, a note about terminology. Global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably. Frank Luntz, an expert on language and branding, has been credited with encouraging the use of “climate change” because it allegedly produces less of a visceral reaction than “global warming.” However, according to NPR, Luntz now believes public reaction is equal to both terms.

In his seminal book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore writes that “the real danger from global warming is not that the temperature will go up a few degrees, it is that the whole global climate system is likely to be thrown out of whack.” NASA agrees with Gore. While “global warming” was embraced by the media, it was never dominant in scientific literature. Since scientists, including those at NASA, find “global climate change” the most accurate terminology, that is what will be used here, except in the case of a quote.

It is important to establish that climate change is real. What debate there was in the scientific community is largely concluded. Some scientists presented hypotheses on climate change and others repeatedly tested their results to try to get a different outcome. At a certain point, when no different outcome was achieved, it became scientific fact. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the Fox show “Cosmos,” explained it to Stephen Colbert this way:

Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world. When different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.

The reason that the debate on climate change is not definitively concluded is that scientific debate never is; there must be constant questioning and skepticism among scientists to make sure they have gotten it right. But for all intents and purposes, climate change has been proven. In a study of over 900 articles published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, 75 percent endorsed that climate change was at least partially human-caused, or anthropogenic. None disputed that anthropogenic change was occurring.

Unfortunately, the method of constantly questioning results is not always easy for a layperson to understand. The elegance of the scientific process has been manipulated for political reasons, especially in the case of climate change. In a memo to Congressional Republicans titled “Winning the Global Warming Debate,” Frank Luntz wrote,

The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science… Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly… The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science.3

This is the kind of deception upon which Miller is relying when he calls climate change a “questionable phenomenon.” And it is nothing new. In 2010, while running for Alaska’s other U.S. Senate seat held by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Miller said “the scientific support for climate change is dubious at best” and criticized Murkowski for supporting Cap and Trade.

Miller, like many Americans, makes the mistake of using short-term climate data to disregard the long-term trends. In January, he wrote that “record snowfall is slamming the northeast, while the Midwest has passed into the deep-freeze with unprecedented temperatures as low as -40 degrees, and windchills registering in at -70.” But single events like snowstorms no more disprove climate change than one hot day proves it. As already explained, “climate change” is the accepted scientific term because it is more complex than uniform warming.

In his statements of May 17, Miller selectively used science to deny climate change. The Geophysical Institute study he cited studied Alaska temperatures from 2000 to 2010. While there was a statewide average temperature decrease of 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit during that period, there was a 2.2 degree increase from 1875 until 2000 in the Arctic. In Miller’s hometown of Fairbanks, the increase was 2.5 degrees during a hundred year period, double the increase for the whole planet. The decrease that Miller trumpets ignores the fact that everything north of the Brooks Range warmed significantly and the statewide average was brought down by the statistical outlier of 2008.

Miller cited another snapshot of sea ice from Fox News to discount climate change. Pictures comparing Arctic sea ice coverage from August 2012 and August 2013 are striking. However, 2012 was the all-time low for sea ice coverage. The year-over-year increase did not even bring ice coverage back to the average, which already includes a trend of decline. Fox crowed that 2013 was within two standard deviations of a 30-year average. They may be unaware that that equates to roughly one million square kilometers of ice.

September ice coverage was over 7 million square kilometers in 1980. The number is not an abstraction for the people of coastal Shishmaref. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in Field Notes From a Catastrophe,

When the Chukchi Sea froze early, the layer of ice protected the village… When the sea started to freeze later, Shishmaref became more vulnerable to storm surges. A storm in October 1997 scoured away a hundred-and-twenty-five-foot-wide strip from the town’s northern edge; several houses were destroyed and more than a dozen had to be relocated. During another storm, in October 2001, the village was threatened by twelve-foot waves. In the summer of 2002, residents of Shishmaref voted…to move the entire village to the mainland… It is estimated that a full relocation would cost the U.S. government $180 million.

Shismaref and Kivalina, similarly situated, recently made a list of 30 U.S. cultural resources threatened by climate change, along with Cape Krusenstern National Monument and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Not only does the absence of sea ice leave coastal communities vulnerable to storm waves, it also accelerates the feedback loop of climate change. While snow-covered ice reflects 80 percent of solar energy and bare ice 65 percent, open water reflects only seven percent of the sun’s rays, absorbing the rest and increasing temperature. Increased atmospheric water vapor from an iceless sea contributes between 20 and 40 percent of warming due to the greenhouse effect.

Reduced sea ice coverage also makes subsistence more difficult. Permanent ice provides habitat for walrus and seals. As that ice retreats farther from shore, it becomes harder to hunt. The animals also struggle to survive in a deep water environment. Their prey, fish and shellfish, are jeopardized by ocean acidification. The oceans are critical in the absorption of carbon, but decreased pH levels hamper shell production for pterapods, tiny creatures at the base of the food chain. Pterapods account for up to half of a pink salmon’s diet, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) chemical oceanographer Jeremy Mathis told Scientific American.

Climate change has a negative effect on permafrost, as well. Where permafrost is inconsistently distributed, what is called the discontinuous zone, permafrost melt damages homes and property. This has been documented in Miller’s city of Fairbanks. On the North Slope, traditional ice cellars have to be dug deeper, and thawing threatens months worth of whale meat. A large blob of melting permafrost threatens to bury a portion of the Dalton Highway, cutting off the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay from the rest of the state. The thousands of lakes that dot the land can drain when the permafrost beneath them melts, eliminating migratory bird habitat. And in yet another feedback loop, methane stored beneath those lakes is then freed. Methane is less plentiful in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but 20 times more effective at trapping heat.

Hunting could soon suffer due to climate change. As Rick Sinnott reported in the Alaska Dispatch, moose numbers in many places in the Lower 48 and Canada are declining. “One common denominator,” Sinnott writes, “seems to be climate change. Shorter winters, warmer summers, moister conditions year-round are more favorable to the spread of diseases and parasites.” In Minnesota, moose are suffering from brain worms and liver flukes. In New Hampshire, it is ticks.

Most tick species currently do not exist in Alaska, but winter ticks have been found in the Yukon. Moose with ticks have been known to starve, unable to eat enough to produce blood necessary for their survival and the ticks. Alaska moose would be incredibly vulnerable during the winter to the hair loss associated with tick infestation.
Hunting and fishing are pretty fundamental activities for many Alaskans. Denying climate change, and hence its consequences, is therefore a fairly extreme position to take. The most logical reason a politician would do so is money.

The catalyst of dramatic climate change is the burning of carbon. This makes Alaska a politically tricky place to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change because oil companies, which dominate the state, have the deepest pockets. As of this writing, Miller had only directly received $500 from the oil and gas industry, but the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity, funded by Charles and David Koch, is still up for grabs. Miller received $600,000 from donors tied to Koch Industries in 2010. Koch money may be toxic for Miller during this election due to the closure of the Koch-owned Flint Hills refinery in Miller’s neighborhood.

In his May 17 statement, Miller said, “It’s unclear how empowering the federal government to control even more of our economy, on the authority of dubious scientific claims, comports with free-market economics and Constitutional liberty.”

Ironically, denying climate change also denies the market the opportunity to find a solution, a solution that would be incredibly lucrative. The current global economy does not appear to be sustainable given its resource use and carbon output, but a revolutionized economy with the goal of reducing carbon emissions and controlling extant atmospheric carbon has the potential to spike growth of businesses small and large. Miller supports the development of alternative energy sources to meet demand, but there will be little will to do that unless the impact of carbon-based conventional methods is accepted.

The possibility that Miller genuinely believes climate change is a myth will trouble many Alaskans, but the reaction from his opponents should also draw scrutiny. When asked about Miller’s attacks, Sullivan responded to the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), “despite what many climate change alarmists want us to believe, there is no general consensus on pinpointing the sole cause of global temperature trends.” This is language straight out of the Frank Luntz playbook. Mead Treadwell responded similarly. “Since where most of us live in Alaska was once covered by ice, I’m pretty sure humans didn’t cause it all,” he said.

The recently released National Climate Assessment shows that Alaska has been affected more by climate change than any other spot in the United States. That is projected to continue. The Alaska section of the report is a must-read. In a timely note, the report states,

Both wetland drying and the increased frequency of warm dry summers and associated thunderstorms have led to more large fires in the last ten years than in any decade since record-keeping began in the 1940s…. Even if climate warming were curtailed by reducing heat-trapping gas (also known as greenhouse gas) emissions, the annual area burned in Alaska is projected to double by mid-century and to triple by the end of the century, thus fostering increased emissions of heat-trapping gases, higher temperatures, and increased fires. In addition, thick smoke produced in years of extensive wildfire represents a human health risk.

As I type, a temperature inversion is holding smoke from a massive fire on the Kenai Peninsula close to the ground in Anchorage, leading to respiratory distress for residents. Forest and tundra fires are, once again, a feedback loop.

The people of Alaska are all affected by climate change to varying degrees. These are the people Joe Miller and his opponents seek to represent in the U.S. Senate. Just as Alaskans are adjusting to the reality of science, so must Alaska’s political hopefuls.