In the race to find solutions to the climate crisis, we forget that we already have one of the most effective strategies for stabilizing climate change available within each and every one of us—restraint. When the places that have been sequestering and storing carbon for millions of years are left alone, our planet provides natural solutions to climate change. We just have to get out of the way and let them do their job.
Natural solutions are all around us in Alaska. They are the forests, wetlands, tundra, and alpine landscapes throughout the state. They are Bristol Bay, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, the circumpolar wetlands of Teshekpuk Lake, and the Tongass National Forest. This week, Audubon released the Natural Climate Solutions Report that shows Alaska is our nation’s largest carbon sink, storing over 50% of the total carbon for the United States. Even while Alaska warms at almost three times the rate of the rest of the country, it will remain the single largest carbon storage for our country well into the future. This means that not only are Alaska’s public lands and waters important for birds, other wildlife, humans, and traditional ways of life, while also supporting biological diversity found nowhere else in the world, but these lands and waters are also the necessary components of a functioning global system to combat the climate crisis.
The sheer size of Alaska makes it almost incomprehensible, and it’s often used as the argument to support development. What’s one more gold mine in a state with so much water? But Alaska’s size is what makes it special for all of us. Wetlands, mountains, and coastal plains large enough to support the world’s longest land mammal migrations; oceans cold enough to support the oldest whales in the world; coastlines long enough to support millions of migratory birds every year; and forests intact enough to support 40% of our nation’s birds at any given time. Yet, according to Audubon’s Natural Climate Solutions report, over 80% of Alaska, including its classified “protected” lands, are vulnerable to industrial development. We have already seen this vulnerability. In the past week, the Biden administration traded the Willow Project in the western Arctic for a temporary halt to the oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic Refuge, when the climate argument for both areas should require the United States to protect all of these coastal wetlands and tundra uplands. These arctic tundra systems store two times the amount of carbon that is held in the atmosphere. We are trading our nation’s best chance at climate change mitigation for a short-sighted solution to a fragile economic system.
The impacts of climate change are all around us, but so are the solutions. Together, we can find new ways to protect these most ancient methods of climate regulation—and enjoy the benefits of our nation’s forests, wetlands, and rivers on public lands across Alaska.
More Alaska-specific findings from the report can be found here.