So I was up in Alaska last week, probably my favorite state other than our own. I was distressed to find our beautiful, rugged neighbor is now Ground Zero for two of the worst trends of the times.
It’s having both an environmental and political meltdown. It’s heat and Trumpism, a toxic mix.
The heat was profoundly visible in a hike out to Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. I last saw this massive baby-blue river of ice in the 1980s. It’s been retreating for some time, but now it is heading backward at such alarming rates you soon won’t be able to see it from the visitor center.
Signs on the trail mark the “ice limit” by year, so you can feel the glacier’s accelerating demise as you walk. Just in the 30 years since I was last there it’s backed up about a mile (out of a total of 2.5 miles since the 1700s). During some recent summers the ice has melted so much that the lake below flooded trails along the shore, like an arctic Venice.
The visitors center, with its big picture windows, is now so far from the glacier that plans call for it to be supplemented with a “mobile visitors center” — a satellite building that can be periodically relocated up the valley as the ice recedes.
That’s the state of global warming up north. It’s coming on so fast they’re now chasing after the ice.
In coincidental but related news, the day I got to the Alaska state capital, last Friday, the governor touched off a political meltdown by announcing he was slashing the state university system’s budget by 40 percent.
The cuts are so deep the university president called it “an institutional and reputational blow from which we may never recover.” Researchers noted the cuts could lead to the elimination of some of the system’s most globally famed research, which tends to be in the area of … you guessed it … climate change.
“Every climate change researcher, educator, scientist, and student in the Lower 48 whose work touches the American Arctic relies on the University of Alaska,” one researcher told Earther, a blog that covers environmental news.
Potentially on the chopping block now are programs at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, known worldwide for Arctic research. It’s home to the International Arctic Research Center, the Geophysical Institute, where they study permafrost and glaciers, and the Institute of Arctic Biology.
The reason for the radical cuts are as Trumpy as it gets — part denial of reality, part ‘who cares about this academic stuff anyway.’ Long story short is Alaskans have long enjoyed a wealth of government services without having to pay for most of it themselves. It has no state income tax or state sales tax, so government is financed mostly with oil revenues — including a yearly distribution payout of $1,000 to $3,000 per person in the state.
Oil revenues have been declining though, as they will probably continue to do in the long run. But the red-state political system refuses to even consider taxes, even though Alaska ranks as the lowest-taxed state in the nation. Meanwhile the governor, a Trump favorite, insists on paying out the maximum $3,000 per person distribution from the oil Permanent Fund — without any way to balance all this other than looting higher education.
The university president said he will be forced to lay off 1,300 of the system’s 3,000 employees.
Writing in Forbes, the atmospheric scientist Marshall Shepherd said this about the Alaska plan: “Gutting higher education … probably belongs on ‘a top 5 list’ of how not to attract new people to the state.”
So true. I guess Alaska is now the latest petri dish for the grand conservative experiment, which holds that slashing government as well as taxes is somehow the key to raining prosperity on the populace. It’s a principle that has failed repeatedly — see most recently and infamously, Kansas — but which the party sticks to slavishly despite all the evidence.
I feel bad for Alaska. It’s so vast and jagged and wild it has always felt immune to our harms. But these self-interested times are upping the ante.