Lisa Busch in the Sitka Sound Science Center Aquarium. Busch says that she applied to join the Governor’s Climate Action Leadership Team because Sitkans are “engaged” in the environment. “We see things happening here in fishing, in subsistence — in picnicking — that people in the rest of the country don’t notice when they’re driving to the mall.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Regardless of your politics, it’s obvious to most Alaskans that the environment is changing. In the Arctic, it’s melting permafrost and increased erosion; in Southeast, it’s higher-energy storms and warming ocean temperatures. In December Governor Bill Walker appointed a non-political, 20-member “Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team” to recommend measures that should be taken in the state to address climate change. The group met for the first time recently in Anchorage. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey spoke Sitka Sound Science Center Director Lisa Busch about her role on the team.

Downloadable audio.

The next meeting of the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team will be later this month. See a complete list of members.

Lisa Busch manages a science organization. She doesn’t play politics. She applied to serve on the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team to propel the conversation forward.

I can tell you that climate change science very clearly is saying that climate change is happening. The majority of climate change scientists say that something is happening, and the majority of them say that it is human-induced. We can identify the sources of carbon in the atmosphere, and we expect that rate to accelerate if we do nothing. I feel like I can bring that to the table and we don’t need to constantly have that conversation over and over again at this task force table — we can address, Okay climate change is happening, what do we do now?

Although the leadership is non-partisan, it’s 20 members come from diverse regions and backgrounds across the state — oil companies, tribal organization, and fishermen. While it’s not a room full of academics, Busch says that the team shares a kind of idealism about the future of what is now an oil-dependent state.

The lieutenant governor spoke to us about the fact that we are a resource development state, and the oil industry is important to our economy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also prepare for change. And that also change could potentially bring tremendous economic opportunity in the renewable energy sector; in the transportation sector, with the opening up of the ice in the Arctic; in the knowledge sector, how our University of Alaska could have a competitive advantage; in the construction sector — the list goes on and on.

Busch says that in the 1960s and 1970s the United States won a reputation as a global leader on environmental issues, with a series of landmark laws like the Clean Air Act and Environmental Protection Act. But she believes that the US has recently abdicated that role, leaving places like Alaska and Norway to model a proactive response to climate change.

We as Alaskans have an opportunity to be forward thinkers and leaders. I think President Trump saying that the US is going to back out of the Paris Climate Accord is kind of a demonstration that the federal government is not going to be a leader in climate change response. But we as Alaskans — Alaskans who are a very capable, flexible, resilient group of people can be leaders in this sector. So I’m excited to be thinking about that and it was definitely part of the discussion.

But are there contradictions? The latest federal tax overhaul bill included a measure opening parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration — a huge win for pro-industry advocates in a decades-long battle to expand Alaska’s oil development on the North Slope.

Does Busch believe this event undermines the task force’s efforts to push the state into a leadership role on climate change?

I don’t think so. We’re talking about what we can do right now. We all use oil. We wear it. We use it in our daily lives in many many different forms. But how can we decrease our carbon emissions? How can we decrease our carbon footprint? In Sitka we’re doing a lot of the things: Replacing plastic bags with cloth, food security, we have an electric vehicle group — these are things that can go on alongside of whatever’s happening with the bigger political picture.

Busch is joined on the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team by fellow Sitkan Linda Behnken, the director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. Busch says she’s grateful to have commercial fishing perspective in the group. “They wake up every morning and go to work on the front lines of climate change,” she says.

Busch and Behnken were appointed to the group by the governor from a pool of nearly 100 applicants.