Alaska Joins Legal Battle Against Emissions Rules

Alaska is known as the early warning system of climate change, but the state has joined the legal fight against government regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. Many Alaskans are angry that their state is joining the EPA's opposition to greenhouse-gas rules in a landmark case now before the Supreme Court.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, using jet fuel in a racecar, the latest scandal from NASCAR. First, Alaska isn't known as a tree-hugger state. Yet, a growing number of Alaskans are siding with environmentalists as they watch firsthand the effects of climate change. Many are angry the state joined a landmark climate change case before the Supreme Court against the regulation of greenhouse gases.

NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: With its disappearing glaciers, melting permafrost, thinning sea ice, and eroding coast lines, Alaska's been dubbed the early warning system of climate change. Dr. Robert Corell, who headed up a pivotal international study of the Arctic, says Alaskans are feeling it first.

Dr. ROBERT CORELL (Chair, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment): We're warming five to eight times faster than the rest of the planet. So it's a here-and-now problem if you live in Alaska.

ARNOLD: So many Alaskans were shocked to learn that their state had quietly joined the first global warming case to reach the Supreme Court against EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The state's position was revealed publicly after Governor Frank Murkowski was voted out of office. The current governor, Sarah Palin, has remained silent on the issue.

Deborah Williams, a former interior department official who now heads up a climate change non-profit, shakes her head in disbelief.

Ms. DEBORAH WILLIAMS (Executive Director, Alaska Conservation Solutions): Alaska has more at stake than any other state in the nation. We should be at the forefront of advocating for greenhouse emission reductions. For Alaska's leadership to be in denial about global warming hurts not only our state but the rest of the nation and the world.

ARNOLD: Alaska's Department of Law at first refused to comment, but spokesman Mark Morones has now says the state is not denying that climate change is caused by emissions, but rather is maintaining that those emissions come from all over the world. And the Clean Air Act does not give the EPA authority to deal with international air quality. In short, reducing car emissions here would just be a drop in the bucket.

Mr. MARK MORONES (Spokesman, Department of Law): I think in this particular case, the question is why did we intervene on the side of the EPA, and I think we agree with the EPA that we don't think that it's structured to kind of regulate these particular emissions. But I think in a bigger context, you know, it is kind of a global issue. And I think it needs to be addressed in that manner.

ARNOLD: Well, it may have been tempting for a state that relies on oil production to side with an automobile state, the political landscape is changing rapidly. Alaska's two Republican senators now say they've suddenly seen the light on climate change. Lisa Murkowski, who is hedged in the past on the issue has introduced legislation to reduce fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): On climate change, from Alaska's perspective, in my opinion, there is no question, but that's something is going on, something demonstrable that we can view.

ARNOLD: And even more noteworthy, Senator Ted Stevens, who as recently as two years ago voted against fuel efficiency standards, now has introduced his own bill to raise standards for cars to 40 miles per gallon within a decade.

Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): Ms. Chairman, a global climate change is a very serious problem for us becoming more so everyday. But as far as the United States is concerned, the evidence of global climate change is more apparent in our home state in Alaska, than anywhere else.

ARNOLD: Stevens sudden change of heart has heads and lobbyist spinning, in Congress, let alone here in his home state. But increasingly, resource development groups, businesses and municipalities in Alaska are waiting the economic and social cost of ignoring climate change and moving to a more proactive position, that may make it more difficult for the current governor to do nothing.

Anne Wilkus(ph) heads up Trustees For Alaska which contributed a friend of the court brief to the Supreme Court case on behalf of Alaskan natives. It details impacts such as the need to relocate entire villages eroding into the Bering Sea.

Ms. ANNE WILKUS (Trustees For Alaska): And so for the state of Alaska, they're coming in and basically side against its own people is outrageous. What I would hope would happen is that Governor Palin would withdraw the states brief.

ARNOLD: With front-page stories almost daily on the mounting scientific evidence of warming in Alaska, everyone's becoming an expert and even anecdotal events have taken on new meaning. On an unusually warm day here recently, a brown bear at the Alaska Zoo made headlines startling visitors by coming out of hibernation early, thinking it was spring.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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