I returned to Alaska last week to visit my family and the places I grew up, and inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.
My brother’s snowmobile sits covered up near his cabin, and he never started it up last year because there wasn’t enough snow.
The change of climate in Alaska has made the national news. In 2016, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race didn’t have enough snow for the ceremonial start in Anchorage, so snow was brought in by train (however, they did get a dumping of snow the day before). The race for years would restart in Wasilla, my hometown. In 2008, the restart was officially moved from Wasilla to Willow, 30 miles north, because there were too many years where Wasilla didn’t have enough snow. But in 2015, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to restart in Fairbanks, 300 miles north of Willow—because there wasn’t enough snow across most of Southcentral and Western Alaska.
Sea levels are rising, and entire Native villages are being forced to make the decision to move. This story on the village of Shishmaref aired on NPR days before I returned home. Houses are collapsing in villages because the permafrost—which is exactly as it sounds, ground that is supposed to be permanently frozen—has begun to thaw, causing sinkholes. Even in areas close to Anchorage, wells and septic systems are failing because the ground is warming up and pipes are breaking as the ground collapses.
Growing up in Anchorage and Wasilla, Alaska (I lived there from 83-95), it almost always snowed by the second week of October, and the snow stayed through April. In the late 90’s, when I came home at Christmas from college, I could already see the changes. One Christmas it was 30 degrees out and we were all wearing sweaters instead of our winter coats (it’s a dry cold, and +30 seems balmy compared to 20 below). One Christmas there was no snow on the ground. Since 2000, the winters have been warmer, and now, my dad and brother told me about how most of the time in January it rains—then it freezes, which is much more dangerous than the snow and cold we used to have.
Summers have been warmer, and warmer for longer—last week, it was in the 70’s by the time we left. There is a beetle that has infested the birch trees—my mother was telling me that scientists are not too worried about it, they believe the winter will kill it, but it is something that traveled north with the warmer weather and infected the trees so the leaves didn’t turn the normal golden yellow—instead, they became brown. But the rest of the land—especially up in the mountains, where in previous Augusts, the tundra shrubs would have turned to brilliant reds by this time of year—are still green because autumn is coming later.
Glaciers that I used to see from driving on the road are no longer visible. Portage Glacier, a famous glacier less than an hour south of Anchorage, receded in eight years what they had expected it to take 25 years to do (hence, a very expensive visitor’s center that was built, along with a boat to go look at the glacier, had to change purposes since you can’t see the glacier any longer, not even from the boat on the lake. When we first moved to Alaska in 1983, there was no lake—the glacier was right there by the road).
Exit Glacier is known outside of Alaska because President Obama visited there on his trip to Alaska. I have been to Exit Glacier three times: 2003, 2010, and a week ago. I have shared pictures here so one might see the dramatic changes over the years.
Climate change must be the church’s responsibility. God gave us the earth, to have dominion over it the way God has dominion over us—and we continue to abuse that gift and deny our responsibility. Our addiction to fossil fuels is not only warming our planet, but is killing the most vulnerable. Environmental degradation is part of racism, as seen in the events in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where currently the Dakota Access Pipeline and Energy Transfer Partners have bulldozed sacred ground, including gravesites, and provoked protestors and attacked them with dogs and mace. Or lead in the water supply in Flint, Michigan. Or the above article on Shishmaref, Alaska. Climate change is affecting Black communities, Native American and Native Alaskan communities in disproportionate ways. Sure, rich folks live by the seashore, too—but generally speaking they have the resources to protect their homes, or to move. Poor folks have no place to go.
Environmental degradation is part of racism, and we must work not only to reduce our own waste and reliance on fossil fuels, but to support the Sioux of Standing Rock and all Black and Native communities affected by this injustice and our continued failure to live up to God’s intention for us: to be the earth’s caretakers, to truly love our neighbors as God has loved us.