Lieutenant Governor Says Alaska Is ‘Ground Zero’ for Climate Change

Byron Mallott said the state already has started to move communities because of climate change.

January 29, 2018

Alt Text

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott talks sustainability and the changing Arctic with SMPA director Frank Sesno. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)

By Ruth Steinhardt

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott visited the George Washington University Tuesday to discuss climate change, his unique political background and the future of his state.

At “Sustaining Alaska: Balancing Climate and Energy in America’s Last Frontier,” a salon hosted by Planet Forward and the School of Media and Public Affairs, Mr. Mallott talked to SMPA Director Frank Sesno and answered questions from students and policymakers.

Alaska is “ground zero” for climate change, Mr. Mallot said. What may be a theoretical concern in other places is concrete in Alaska, which he said has seen significant coastal erosion, changing weather patterns, unexpected species migration and a melting permafrost.

“We have already begun the movement of at least one community, and several more are in planning,” Mr. Mallott said. “State and federal governments have identified some 20-plus communities that we believe ultimately will need to be moved” within the next few decades.

The urgency of the moment has led to energy compromises that some outside the state find distasteful. Mr. Mallott has supported oil-drilling initiatives in Alaska, but he emphasizes they are a stopgap measure.

“We have to live with the reality that there is a half-life to petroleum’s existence,” he said.

Mr. Mallott was born in Yakutat, a community of a few hundred on the Gulf of Alaska. His mother is a member of the Tlingit Indian Tribe, as is he, and he grew up speaking the language until forced assimilation made him lose it.

“Native people in our country, and Alaska is no exception, have not been treated well,” Mr. Mallott said. As a child, he was told to abandon aspects of his culture because “it was a white world, and we were going to enter that world.”

Of the Tlingit language Mr. Mallott said he now remembers only “most of the cuss words,” but his heritage has helped shape his priorities as lieutenant governor. He created the Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council in 2016, as well as the first state-tribal compact on the adoption of Native children. And he has made a point of discussing development and climate change initiatives with community and tribal leaders.

“Throughout our history, Native peoples, first peoples, have not been part of any significant public policy conversation that affects them,” he said. 

And though Mr. Mallott is a committed environmentalist, he said, “To me, people come first—particularly as an Alaska Native, when I’ve seen my people never come first.”

Discussing the building of a controversial road through a federal wildlife reserve, he pointed out that several dozen area residents have died as a direct result of the lack of all-weather access to airports and hospitals.

“I know nature is much stronger and less fragile because I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it,” he said. “A 12-mile road is going to cause change, certainly, but it’s not going to destroy the wildlife refuge. It’s not going to destroy the habitat for the birds…The Exxon Valdez—that’s a whole different thing. But this kind of process I am absolutely comfortable [with] as an environmentalist, as someone who cares passionately about the beauty of our state.”

Mr. Mallott and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, are the only non-partisan pair of governor and lieutenant governor in the United States. After finding a number of issues on which they agreed, Mr. Mallott dropped out of the 2014 gubernatorial race, in which he was running as a Democrat, to support the independent Mr. Walker on a “unity” ticket.

“I saw Alaska going in a direction that bothered me,” he said. “I saw hard-edge ideology creeping into our conversation and into our politics.”

Now, he said, he and Mr. Walker almost never consider the party line when discussing Alaskan issues. And the sharp partisan divides that grip much of the country do not strongly affect them.

“In the over three years now that we’ve been in office, when we’ve been discussing policies, programs, issues that affect our state, the times we’ve used the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ I can count on both hands,” Mr. Mallott said.

The Planet Forward Storyfest Awards grand prize for 2018 features a storytelling trip to Alaska with Lindblad Expeditions. Asked what he would advise the winning group about their visit, Mr. Mallott said they should “come with an open mind.”

“You’re coming to one of God’s great places, one of creation’s great places, and it is changing before our very eyes,” he said. “That requires all of us and our children to be fully engaged in shaping [its] future.”