This fall, Aspen Skiing Co. kicked off a campaign called Give a Fl*ke. Aspen, which has been progressive about fighting climate change, bought advertisements in five magazines, including Outside’s November issue. The ad included a prepaid postcard addressed to one of three moderate Republican U.S. senators from snowy states—Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Maine’s Susan Collins, Ohio's Rob Portman—that readers can send to them. The postcards remind the senators how important snow, and skiing, are to their states and how a rapidly changing climate is affecting them. Some of the postcards call out the legislators for their votes—or lack of votes—to fight climate change. And they demand that the senators take more action. In all, 1 million postcards were printed.
After the ad appeared, Outside received a letter to the editor from Senator Murkowski. In it, the senator took umbrage with the ad’s targeting of her, saying it was undeserved.
Who’s right? We fact-checked both Senator Murkowski’s letter and the campaign’s reasons for including her.
As one who was born and raised in Alaska, and an avid downhill skier and fan of winter, FACT CHECK: Since we’re fact-checking everything, yes, the senator indeed has been a big skier. In fact, she tore two ligaments and cartilage in her left knee back in 2009 when she ragdolled more than 300 feel down Girdwood’s Mount Alyeska. I was surprised to learn about the “Give a Flake” ad campaign running in these pages to challenge my work on climate change.
Climate change is real. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are a key driver of the changes we are seeing, both in my home state and around the world. And that is why we must all work together to find common-sense solutions. Murkowski hasn’t been shy about her belief that climate change poses serious dangers—particularly for Alaska, as the far north warms faster than any other region on earth. Just a few weeks ago, at Stanford University’s Global Energy Forum, Murkowski said climate change needs to be addressed, no matter what political party is in charge, according to E&E News.
Within the Senate, I’ve authored a broad, bipartisan energy bill that focuses on efficiency, storage, and renewables. True. The bill, eventually called the Energy Policy Modernization Act, was rolled into the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017. It has yet to pass.
I’ve worked across the aisle to enact legislation that promotes clean, renewable hydropower and increases funding for innovation. And I recently introduced a new bill to promote advanced nuclear power, which is our largest source of carbon-free electricity. True.
We’re also leading by example in Alaska. We lead the world in microgrids. Alaska indeed is a leader in development and operation of microgrids, or electricity distribution systems (such as in remote communities) that aren’t necessarily plugged into a larger system. In 2015, more than 70 of Alaska’s microgrids accounted for about 12 percent of the world’s renewably powered microgrids, using anything from wind power to solar to small hydro projects, according to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power based at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks.
Cordova has transitioned away from costly diesel fuel, and renewables now account for 80 percent of its power. Hydropower, wind turbines, batteries, and flywheels generate nearly 99 percent of Kodiak’s electricity. And small, remote villages like Igiugig are implementing new technologies like in-river systems to cut their energy costs and emissions. These statements are true for Cordova, Kodiak, and also for Igiugig. But it’s also true that Kodiak has only about 6,000 residents, plus fish processing plants, and Cordova has just 2,100 residents. Igiugig’s population is only about 60. Over the years, Murkowski has voted to make the military invest in alternative fuels and voted to support the establishment of “Clean Energy Victory Bonds” that would raise as much as $50 billion to finance clean energy projects.
I care about our environment. I love winter, snow, and skiing. If you also “give a flake,” don’t just send a postcard. Send your Senators your best ideas and then help us build consensus for them.
Finding the truth, though, is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. While any single piece can be accurate enough, it doesn’t necessarily convey the full picture. Aspen says it focused its campaign in part on Murkowski because of what she has or hasn’t done on issues of much bigger importance. So we checked out some of those claims, too. As Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen, wrote to Outside:
Senator Murkowski deserves tremendous credit for standing out, almost alone among members of her party, in accepting climate science and pursing legislation to address the problem. This is a brave and politically difficult stance in a state dominated by fossil fuel interests.
But the Senator’s voting record has undone any benefit from her work. By supporting Scott Pruitt for EPA, she helped undo the last decade’s worth of American climate policy. Murkowski did vote to confirm Pruitt for the post. Known before taking the job for his skeptical views about climate change, Pruitt oversaw perhaps the biggest rollback of regulations in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency, including several Obama-era regulations about cars and power plants that were designed to mitigate climate change. Pruitt also pushed President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty. These have been enormous setbacks for the climate.
She was the swing vote in favor of repealing the BLM methane rule This requires a little clarification: Murkowski indeed voted last year to overturn an Obama-era regulation that required oil and gas producers on public lands to prevent the escape of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 30 times more potent in its ability to trap heat than carbon dioxide. Murkowski claimed the rule was expensive and unneeded and would cost jobs. In the end, Senate Republicans fell short on their attempt to rescind the vote. (Earlier this year, though, the Trump administration relaxed the regulation.) that would limit wasteful emissions of this super greenhouse gas.
Combine that with opening the Arctic Refuge for drilling, and all the little energy efficiency bills, small local hydro systems, and far distant future nuclear plants Murkowski’s support for the GOP tax bill one year ago was secured by adding a piece of pork that she and some other Alaskans had long prized: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, allowing Alaska to extend its economy’s deep reliance on oil and to keep pushing oil out to the broader world. won’t save Alaskans from runaway warming.
Recently, the world’s top climate scientists reported that we will likely fail to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees (Centigrade), and that there is “no documented historic precedent” for the scale of action required to achieve that goal. Warming beyond 1.5 C will cripple Alaska’s economy; already, annual temperatures have increased more than twice as fast as global average, native villages are eroding into the sea, and bridges, roads, and buildings crumble as permafrost melts. “Cripple” could be debated, but dozens of towns and cities statewide may need to relocate. Melting permafrost is already playing havoc with roads and bridges. Harvestable fish are being affected by warming waters.
The time for token measures that are nice but inadequate is long past. The time for bold action is now, even at great political risk, because no Senator should bear responsibility for the demise of her state. Plausible, bipartisan legislation includes ending subsidies for fossil fuels; voting against anti-climate appointments like Pruitt’s; passing state renewable energy standards; and backing national bipartisan climate policy like fee and dividend.
The era of political consequences for climate delay has begun. The outdoor industry is a huge economic engine in Alaska. Its constituents vote. And the industry looks forward to working together with the Senator on the big things that matter to us all.
Here is one more bit of context about Murkowski and the environment: In 2015, the Obama administration put in place the Clean Power Plan, a policy to combat climate change by regulating carbon emissions from power plants, which are a major source of greenhouse gases. Murkowski lobbied for and succeeded in getting Alaska exempted from the plan. Yet afterward she continued to fight the Clean Power Plan, calling its rules “burdensome.”
Aspen’s Schendler said in a call to Outside that the campaign’s goal is not simply to scold politicians but to urge them to further action. Climate advocates see in Murkowski a smart, reasonable, influential politician—she chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—who understands the threat and who may listen. “With Murkowski, we thought that we could move her,” Schendler said.
In short, both sides are accurate: While Murkowski appears to understand climate change and its impacts and has taken some steps to combat it, to date she has taken steps related only to innovation and energy savings, and she has been unwilling to make hydrocarbons more expensive or take other steps that would significantly address the problem.
It is entirely appropriate to call out Murkowski for her lack of major action, says Charles Wohlforth, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and the author of a book about climate change in Arctic Alaska. But the hope for ambitious action from Murkowski may go wanting, he said. “She is a Republican from one of the reddest parts of the country,” he said. “The entire basis of her state’s economy is fossil fuels.” In that environment, even conceding the fact of climate change and doing smaller things is nearly “courageous,” Wohlforth said. “If she were to go whole hog on climate change and suggest a carbon tax,” he guessed, “that would be political suicide for her.”
And a postcard campaign? Wohlforth doesn’t believe that will sway Murkowski at all. “I think the only thing that would matter to her is if she got a zillion preprinted postcards from Alaska. National pressure means nothing to her.” Alaskan politics are intensely local, he said. “She’s very much an Alaskan politician.”