08/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cap-and-Trade and a Case for Special Cases from Alaska's Far North

When I started work on my book Cold, climate change was not the first thing on my mind. I was intentionally seeking out cold experiences -- low temperatures, not high, were the target. But as I grew to know northern Alaska, it became impossible to ignore climate change. Signs of change popped up everywhere, in the form of odd weather patterns, eroding shorelines, frozen ground collapsing as it thawed, and changes in animal migration patterns. And everyone wanted to talk about climate change.

Some of the people I met believed it was natural change while others attributed it to greenhouse gas emissions. One Inupiat (Eskimo) hunter -- a whaling captain in his seventies who had, on many occasions since the 1960s, assisted scientists working in the Arctic -- felt certain that humans were too insignificant to have an impact on the world's climate, but others disagreed. 2009-07-30-icemountain.jpgMany Inupiat seemed to feel that the changes were caused by humans, and for the most part humans in far away cities. During the time that I worked on the book, I sensed a growing anger over these changes and over the Bush administration's head-in-the-sand approach to dealing climate change.

Enter President Barack Obama and his team with their solution: a cap that will limit overall emissions but put the details into the hands of traders, into the hands of the market. Alaska's former Governor Sarah Palin -- like many others -- believes that a cap-and-trade policy intended to control greenhouse gas emissions threatens the economy, and especially the economy of Alaska. She agrees with Warren Buffet, who recently told a CNBC audience that "very poor people are going to pay a lot more money for electricity" in a cap-and-trade world. Economic models suggest that Palin and Buffet are dead wrong, at least when it comes to overall effects on the economy and the population. But there are special cases that require special attention, including the case of Palin's northernmost constituents, who will be heavily impacted by of a cap-and-trade policy.

Costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions are not new costs to our economy, but rather existing costs that have been transferred to the environment. 2009-07-30-orange.jpg Under current regulations, the driver of an SUV shares the costs of emissions with a bicycle commuter -- both pay by tolerating unnecessary environmental degradation and by contributing to taxes used to repair damage caused by that degradation, irrespective of the gases they themselves generated. In other words, current regulations allow costs to be externalized, foisted upon the public at large as a cost not of doing business but rather as a cost of being a member of society. By capping emissions, a cap-and-trade policy will in effect limit the use of conventional fossil fuels, drive their price upwards, and ultimately force industries and individuals to internalize the costs of climate changing pollution.

Seen in this light, the emerging energy policy seems fair minded, really nothing more than "user pays." But consider the unintended consequences, especially those impacting one of society's most disenfranchised -- and in this case most impacted -- minorities.

Palin's state supports northern villages populated by a few thousand Inupiat people who live in a manner so removed from that of mainstream America as to be almost unrecognizable. They face brutally cold temperatures and winter darkness. Monumental drug and alcohol problems -- originally brought to the villages in the late 1800s by Yankee whalers -- too often steal their lives. A recent revival may or may not save their language. Yet they retain a remarkable identity, a fundamental human decency, a mix of the modern and the old ways, and an absolute dependence -- both culturally and calorically -- on harvesting caribou, fish, seals, and whales.

Here are five important facts. First, Inupiat people benefit from income originating in the North Slope oilfields, which, because of relatively high carbon emissions associated with production, will be threatened by cap-and-trade legislation. 2009-07-30-color.jpg Second, Inupiat people are inordinately affected by climate change, with entire villages threatened by erosion and increased storm damage linked to reduced summertime sea ice. Third, in the marriage of the modern and old ways, Inupiat people need fuel for four-wheelers and boats used in subsistence hunting. Fourth, gasoline prices in villages, which passed the seven dollar per gallon mark last year, are already high enough to encourage conservation. Fifth, heating oil, which can cost more than six dollars per gallon in the villages, long ago replaced seal oil as the source of warmth in winter.

Nineteenth century whalers and missionaries brought diseases that wiped out entire villages. Anthropologist Diamond Jenness, who lived in northern Alaska from 1913 to 1915, wrote of an Inupiat woman known as Lady McGuire: "Lady McGuire, as we nicknamed her, was one of the few original inhabitants of the Barrow district, most of whom had been swept away by European-introduced diseases." The unintended consequences of a well-meaning cap-and-trade policy could similarly devastate the far north, simultaneously hurting the primary regional industry and driving fuel prices well beyond the reach of Inupiat hunters.

Cold is featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review July 26th issue. For more information, visit or

Bill Streever is the author of the recently published book, Cold, and a biologist working in northern Alaska.