Over the course of May 2016, protests loosely linked by the #BreakFree and Keep It In The Ground movements rocked 6 continents, mobilizing over 30,000 people in direct action toward a more just and sustainable energy future. Protestors called to stop mining of all remaining fossil fuel reserves and shift to a 100% renewable energy economy.[1] They argued for an end to oil and gas leases on public lands, in order to begin the transition away from fossil-based fuels and lay the groundwork for sustainable and socially just economies.

In Newcastle, Australia, 2,000 people in kayaks and on land shut down the world’s largest coal port for a day. In Lakewood, Colorado, hundreds of people disrupted an auction selling off thousands of acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, and in Wales, activists shut down the UK’s largest open-cast coal mine for over 12 hours.

Despite the active denial of climate change from officials like Scott Pruitt, now the director of the EPA, the international scientific community has reached consensus that any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change depends on leaving the vast majority of known fossil-fuel reserves, let alone undiscovered future resources, undeveloped.

In December of 2015, the historic Paris Agreement[2] committed to limiting global temperature increases to within 2 degrees Celsius – a number that quickly became a rallying cry for climate change activists worldwide. Only a few months later, a paper published in the scientific journal Nature reported that a third of unused global oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80% of coal reserves would have to remain in the ground in order to meet that goal. Further, it reported, any Arctic drilling or unconventional oil production (e.g., fracking) was incompatible with meeting those goals. The study concluded that a commitment to meeting the 2 °C limit would “render unnecessary continued substantial expenditure on fossil-fuel exploration, because any new discoveries could not lead to increased aggregate production.”[3]

This is a stark reality, and nowhere is the urgency of its message felt more intensely than the Arctic. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report,[4] the Arctic is warming, on average, more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and the average winter temperature has risen 6.3 degrees F over the past 50 years.[5] That warming trend is evident in a 2015 study by scientists at the University of Fairbanks and other institutions found that Alaska’s glaciers had lost 75 billion metric tons of ice per year.[6]

Communities across Alaska are already viscerally experiencing the effects of sea ice melt, coastal erosion, and permafrost thaw. The coastal villages of Shishmaref, Kivalina, Koyukuk, and Newtok face relocation due to rapid coastal erosion. In December 2003, the Government Accountability Office reported that most of Alaska’s more than 200 Native villages were already affected by flooding and erosion, and four were in “imminent danger.” By 2009, that number had increased to 31.[7]

An increasing number of energy experts have also questioned the wisdom of Arctic drilling, including former BP chief executive John Browne and Fatih Birol, executive director at the International Energy Agency.[8] Yet, large-scale industrial exploration and extraction of fossil fuels in the Arctic continues, from Shell’s exploratory offshore drilling in 2015 to ConocoPhillips’ current plans to extend the Alpine oil field into federally owned and managed land in the Western Arctic. Beyond the potentially devastating risks to local land, ecosystems, and communities, these projects would also mean the release billions of tons of greenhouse gasses, and the certainty of warming past the Paris Agreement’s 2 degrees C goal.

This stalemate between increasingly dire climate effects—such as the first waves of climate refugees and the Alaskan communities facing relocation—and the inertia of business-as-usual fossil fuel policies brings us back to the increasingly urgent work of the Keep it in the Ground Movement. Even as old-school policies prevent renewable energies from taking hold, the Keep It In The Ground movement has galvanized alliances between a range of disparate organizations across the world, from environmental groups to movements for racial and economic justice.

Even as it gains ground, the movement has been criticized for being out of touch with reality: Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell dismissed it as “naïve” in May 2016. In July 2016, Obama’s chief science advisor, John Holdren, echoed her sentiment, calling it “unrealistic.”[9] This sense of impracticality is particularly strong in Alaska, where oil and gas industries dominate state and local economies, and an immediate end to oil and gas extraction would likely be practically and economically unfeasible. But opportunities for renewable energy are particularly important here, given the high costs of diesel and other fossil fuels in remote parts of the state.

More broadly, the summary dismissal of climate activism as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘naïve’ is a textbook example of the way power works: by controlling the terms of the debate. Casting climate activists as working outside the realm of reality serves to police the boundaries of what is considered possible, or what is simply off the table from the beginning. This move reinforces the status quo as the only practicable solution, making it seem inevitable and obscuring an analysis of how extractive capitalism itself works.

Most importantly, it forecloses the potential for the radical changes in energy use and production that a meaningful response to climate change necessitates. In fact, as activists have repeatedly argued, the far more unrealistic and naïve assumption is that undeveloped oil reserves (or Alaska’s, if we’re thinking about the state economy specifically) can reliably sustain worldwide energy demand long-term in the face of global climate crises; or, more fundamentally, that the release of those gigatons of carbon won’t impact the conditions of livability on the planet.

Anthropologists Brigt Dale and Berit Kristoffersen, who write about government structures and fossil fuel-based economies, wrote a 2016 article in Cultural Anthropology in which they consider the social, political, and cultural effects of extractive industries on a time scale that far exceeds the extraction period. “We can’t imagine petroleum as simply being something that’s there, and then gone; rather, petroleum economies now deeply affect what kinds of post-petroleum futures we may – or may not – have,” they write. They continue: “Sustained petroleum development might limit the many ways that post-carbon futures can be initiated and established.”[10] In continuing to develop new fossil fuel sources, we not only waste much-needed time to transition and adapt, but also further constrain our possible futures.

We simply can’t afford not to begin an immediate transition.

Alaska’s economy is manifesting many, if not all, of the converging economic crises consistent with the eventual decline of a resource-dependent economy, including resource depletion, public fiscal stress, and increasing marginal extraction costs. Even if we disregard the scientific consensus on climate change, the fact remains that Alaska must begin to diversify its income streams and job opportunities for purely economic reasons. Borrowing John Holdren’s language of ‘realism,’ the realistic plan is to start transitioning away from fossil fuels immediately. It is an enormous project, and will require all our ingenuity and talent to do it.

Alaskans have been organizing and working towards that goal. The Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition (FCAC) formed in November 2015 to take action on climate and build momentum for a just transition to a new way of living with each other and our environment. It aims to transition away from old paradigms of pollution, extraction, colonialism, and inequality toward values of community, resilience, justice, and democracy.

In 2016, in partnership with Greenpeace USA and the Center for a Sustainable Economy, the Northern Center convened a group of Alaska Native leaders, sustainable development practitioners, and organized labor allies to share ideas about what that transition towards a more sustainable and diverse portfolio of jobs and income streams might look like in Alaska.

The results of those workshops have been summarized in a draft report titled “Beyond Fossil Fuels: Planning a Just Transition for Alaska’s Economy.” Due to be finalized and released in the summer of 2017, the report highlights sustainable development practices that work to support disenfranchised communities, protect and restore natural capital and ecosystem services, reverse environmental injustices against Alaska Natives, and foster local self-reliance. The next steps in this process revolve around laying the groundwork for mutual trust and relationship building with stakeholders across Alaska.

Vivian Underhill

[1] See https://stories.breakfree2016.org/

[2] UN World Climate Summit: http://www.cop21paris.org/

[3] Christopher McGlade and Paul Ekins. “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 degrees C.” (2016) Nature. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v517/n7533/full/nature14016.html

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Cliamte Change: 5th Assessment Report. http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

[5] The Atlantic: “The Village That Will Be Swept Away.” August 30th, 2015 http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/08/alaska-village-climate-change/402604/

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/06/17/alaskas-glaciers-are-now-losing-75-billion-tons-of-ice-every-year/?utm_term=.8b436fe6018c

[7] June 2009 GAO Report to Congressional Requesters. Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress has been made on relocating villages threatened by flooding and erosion. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09551.pdf.

[8] The Guardian. “Shell Abandons Arctic Drilling.” September 28, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/sep/28/shell-ceases-alaska-arctic-drilling-exploratory-well-oil-gas-disappoints

[9] Time Magazine, “Does President Obama Want to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground?”

July 20, 2016. http://time.com/4413405/climate-change-obama-fossil-fuels/

[10] Brigt Dale and Berit Kristoffersen. “Imagining a Postpetroleum Arctic.” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology website. July 29, 2016. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/943-imagining-a-postpetroleum-arctic



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