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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Muller: Alaskan Environmental Policy is Far from Black and White

Compromise and sacrifice can reconcile climate priorities and conservation in the face of the Ambler Access Project in Alaska.

The adverse effects of our climate-changing Earth are indiscriminate and unpredictable in their assaults on human communities. Examples range from the devastating wildfires of Lahaina, Hawai’i, to the increasingly apparent lack of snow I’ve observed each winter from my home in Connecticut. Environmental policy may appear straightforward in its goal of mitigating ecological catastrophes. However, the Ambler Access Project in Alaska, which sees climate activists and biodiversity conservationists pitted against each other, illustrates its multifaceted nature. The fate of our Earth relies on the ability of dueling groups to recognize the inevitability of sacrifice and compromise in creating effective policy.

The primary goal of the Ambler Access Project is to develop a stable supply chain of copper and zinc, necessary metals in clean energy construction, to the U.S. economy through the construction of a “211-mile, controlled industrial-access road that would provide access to the Ambler Mining District in northwestern Alaska” and cut through the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. However, conservationists protest the project, citing that the road will “disrupt the way of life in Alaska Native communities, harm fish and caribou, and likely speed the thawing of permafrost,” according to an environmental review released by the Biden Administration on Oct. 13. Unfortunately, a project that would directly aid in mitigating carbon emissions raises concerns about biodiversity loss and Indigenous rights. This all-too-familiar issue often bogs down environmental policy in bureaucratic bickering. The prospect of prioritizing one goal while sacrificing the other may come to mind, but this does not have to be the case. If opposing organizations would recognize their respective abilities to compromise, issues like the Ambler Road could be resolved more efficiently.

Both sides raise valid concerns with each other’s proposed solutions, and these must be equally examined. One of the chief objectives of the Biden-Harris administration is mitigating carbon emissions and investing in clean energy. According to the Office of the Federal Chief Sustainability Officer, President Biden’s goal is to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by “50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030” and limit “global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Yet this is easier said than done. According to the International Energy Administration, “there are currently not enough minerals available to quickly transition nations from coal, oil and gas to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy,” and the demand is projected to outpace supply, with copper demand projected to increase in the next 10 years by up to 270%. The pressure to establish this supply chain is understandable, then, especially considering the mine’s potential to produce approximately 159 million pounds of copper, 199 million pounds of zinc, 33 million pounds of lead, 3.3 million ounces of silver and 30,600 ounces of gold over its projected 12-year lifespan.

An “any means necessary” approach to clean energy may seem to be the only viable solution, but to operate under such rhetoric would be a gross violation of biodiversity, an equally important factor in mitigating climate change and sustaining human communities. In an environmental review for the Ambler Road proposal, The Bureau of Land Management identified “66 [Native] communities whose subsistence activities could be potentially impacted,” as well as the potential to throw off caribou migration patterns and, subsequently, the population’s future sustainability and reproduction. The highway also has the potential to pollute salmon spawning grounds, inciting resistance from local Indigenous communities who fear the threat of food instability and biodiversity loss.

The necessity of biodiversity cannot be understated, as the functioning of human societies and economies is contingent upon diverse, stable ecosystems providing explicit and implicit ecosystem services. The U.S. Agency for International Development cites biodiversity as integral to food security, economic growth, climate change and natural resource conservation, affirming the conservationist concerns related to the Ambler Access Project while highlighting the potential for compromise. With carbon emissions at the forefront of environmental concern, local stakeholders and federal agencies must realize that their priorities can achieve the same goal. Ecosystems harboring large numbers of trees and other plants act as carbon sinks when these organisms take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. The Ambler Access Project asserts that its Tribal Liaison Program “helps ensure Alaska Native Tribes are influential in guiding development,” yet still pushes for a highway that directly disrupts the tribes’ food subsistence. However, in the long run, local tribes are better served if they seek to negotiate and work with federal agencies, providing their expert knowledge to inform alternative solutions. President Biden and his departments must be equally willing to engage in such conversations, remaining open to alternative solutions in satisfying their policy agendas. Ultimately, the fate of viable, efficient climate mitigation relies on cooperation and compromise.

The reality of modern environmental policy is that it is fraught with tough choices, such as those highlighted in the Ambler Access Project. Still, this reality is of our own doing. Entangled in climate-based solutions are implications of human rights and injustice, biodiversity, economic stability and social attitudes. Environmental degradation is intrinsically tied to our economic and political institutions, necessitating compromise and cooperation rather than a bureaucratic tug-of-war concerned with pushing and blocking policy.

Lessons from Ambler Access extend beyond Alaska and can be applied to biodiversity discussions in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire. Take, for example, the coexistence of Bear Hill Conservancy and Clean Energy New Hampshire, a nonprofit. The Nature Conservancy has deemed Bear Hill “both important to biodiversity protection and resilient to the effects of climate change due to its topography, rich soil, abundant rain and large size,” and Clean Energy is instrumental in New Hampshire’s renewable energy transition. Though oppositional in methodology, the two organizations share a common goal of carbon mitigation, and their cooperative relationship serves as an example of productive climate politics. Ultimately, cooperation and compromise from both local and federal stakeholders are critical to ensuring an appropriate pace of environmental legislation, which will, in turn, produce equitable, just and practical solutions.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

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