Rice University students provide vision of a sustainable Alaska

Multimedia blog highlights students’ investigations while in Alaska this summer

This summer, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy sent two Rice alumni and an undergraduate to Alaska on internships to report on the unique sustainable development challenges that face the state.

Returning to the Lower 48 this weekend after a more than month-long stay, the interns – 2012 graduates Rachael Petersen and Naji Barnes-McFarlane and rising junior Justin Winikoff – investigated issues facing Alaska, including climate change and development of the state’s oil and gas potential. The results of these investigations, including video interviews with a wide range of stakeholders, are now complete and available online at a special blog, “Sustainable Alaska,”www.bakerinstitute.org/sustainablealaska

“Our aim is to educate the public more broadly on the policies that will shape oil drilling, climate change and human livelihood in Alaska,” Petersen said. “We began our journey of learning in our own country, the United States. By demonstrating the risks and opportunities that will come from a changing planet here at home, we hope the ‘Sustainable Alaska’ blog highlights the broader risks and opportunities that face the global community.” 

The blog reflects the views of their student authors and are based upon interviews and study of scientific, policy and social science literature on the subject during the spring semester policy studies course Integrated Solutions to Sustainable Development.

The blog covers such topics as:

How well is Alaska prepared for a possible decline in oil revenue?

Is the state prepared to adapt to climate change?

What would it mean for Alaska if Royal Dutch Shell is unsuccessful in its attempts to drill in the Arctic Ocean?

Should new oil states like North Dakota follow the Alaska oil revenue management paradigm?

According to Baker Institute organizers, nowhere on Earth is the footprint of climate change more dramatic than in the Arctic. Scientists estimate that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with dramatic consequences to ecosystems, infrastructure and communities. So far, high oil prices have offset the effects of decreased oil production in Alaska, but sustained low or even moderate oil prices could plunge the state into the red, just at the time it faces climate-adaptation expenses.

The complexities of climate change are already apparent in Alaska, the students found. “Politicians, shippers, businesses and energy companies are looking forward to a new economic boom that will help the state bounce back from its sharp decline in oil production and associated uncertainty about the future health of state finances,” Winikoff said. “The manifestations of a changing climate – melting sea ice, thawing permafrost and stormier coasts – also pose great risks to Alaska’s population and ecosystems and pose economic challenges just at a time when oil may no longer finance the bulk of Alaska’s state budget.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.