At the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, a generational divide marks the Arctic climate change debate

AFN eventually voted to declare a climate change emergency.

By Dermot Cole - October 28, 2019
An ice-rich permafrost bluff in Utqiagvik with homes atop it is crumbling quickly. (Yereth Rosen)

Alaska’s Indigenous residents scattered in rural villages through the state know the reality of climate change better than most people.

But when it came to declaring a “state of emergency” on climate change at the major annual gathering of Alaska Natives, there was a clear philosophical divide on display.

It was also, to a major extent, a generational divide.

Of the dozens of resolutions debated at the 53rd annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, a resolution presented by two teens to declare a climate state of emergency sparked the most intense and prolonged arguments.

For nearly an hour, the discussion dealt with the challenges of melting sea ice, shrinking permafrost, reductions in carbon emissions and the need for economic development to create good jobs.

Older speakers, particularly those connected to the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., warned of environmental groups using Alaska Natives to promote anti-development goals.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. is the largest Alaska-owned company in the state, with major investments in oil and gas, construction and other businesses. It has nearly 5 million acres of North Slope land, much of it chosen for resource development, including fossil fuel extraction.

Crawford Paktokak, chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation board of directors, unsuccessfully sought to amend the resolution to include a reference to the importance of resource development for Alaska Natives. He said the debate should not be driven by emotion only and that needs have to be balanced.

He questioned the notion that climate change is manmade and criticized environmental groups.

“These are the same organizations that come into our communities and try to split us all apart, split all the corporations, the tribes, the governments. Because they have an agenda. And if they had their agenda, we wouldn’t be able to hunt today,” Patkotak said of national and international environmental groups.

“If they had their agenda, we wouldn’t be able to develop the oil we have in the ground. That would cripple us economically.”

The resolution about climate change had been drafted at the Elders and Youth Conference, a separate gathering that took place before the AFN convention in Fairbanks.

The measure called for Alaska Natives to take serious action now to deal with climate changes.

Two of the proponents spoke to hundred of adults at the convention about how they regard this as an urgent need and a matter of survival. They said that coal and oil are a big part of the problem.

They said that warmer weather has made ice less stable and more dangerous, while many wildlife populations are at risk.

“We shouldn’t have to tell those in charge that we want to survive,” said Nanieezh Peter, 15, of Arctic Village.

“I am not an environmentalist. I am an Indigenous youth,” said Quannah Potts, 17. “We are not here to fight with our own people. We are here to stand together. This is a serious issue. I’m worried about our future generations. We’re crying up here. We should not have to cry to you guys. We should not have to come to you worrying about our future generations, our future children and grandchildren. We should be able to live our ways of life, to hunt.”

Victor Joseph, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, praised the young people who pushed the resolution, as even those who wished to amend it did.

“Let’s honor these young people who stood up. They need it,” he said. “And they did it eloquently and in a good way. Let’s stop the debate and give them what they want.”

The convention did as he suggested, applauding the creation of a task force that will “advance indigenous voices and advocate for strong climate policies that will ensure the survival of future generations.”

Dermot Cole can be reached at [email protected].