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Climate change conference draws diverse crowd

Posted: February 20, 2012 - 12:02am

What do Alaska Native elders, priests, secular humanists and scientists have in common? Apparently, climate change.

A diverse panel of eight convened at the University of Alaska Southeast on Saturday afternoon to spread their message to college students and others in the audience: it is a moral imperative to take action on human-accelerated climate change.

Mary Walker, the executive director of the religious group Alaska Interfaith Power & Light, which hosted the panel discussion, stressed that human-accelerated climate change doesn’t just affect the environment.

“Climate change places human lives and livelihoods at risk, especially the world’s most vulnerable and poor peoples,” said Walker. “It is a threat to human life that should raise our collective consciousness, that action through reductions in carbon air pollution is not merely about caring for our environment. More importantly, it is about caring for one another.”

Walker said the panel was intended to showcase perspectives on climate change from the faith, science and Native communities in order to demonstrate a moral obligation in taking action.

Alaska Interfaith Power & Light has hosted panels in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and Saturday’s panel in Juneau marked the third and final event in the series.

The group asked audience-members to take part in their “One People, One Earth” climate initiative, which is meant to teach greater respect for the earth and for each other by acting on climate change, according to the group’s website. Audience members also signed a petition calling upon President Barack Obama to regulate greenhouse gases and carbon air pollution.

During the discussion, panelists discussed the importance of taking action and why they themselves have.

Dr. F. Stuart “Terry” Chapin III, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the crowd that he has studied Alaska’s climate for the past 40 years, and that the state of Alaska is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

“I’ve been studying the changes in Alaska since I came here 40 years ago, and it’s really clear the climate is changing. I learned that even more clearly by talking to people who live on the land and work on the sea. It’s really clear that Alaska’s changing, and that’s just what we see. Alaska happens to be warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet, but things are changing everywhere, and it’s really clear that climate is changing. It’s clear that human impacts on the climate system are the biggest driver of these changes, and there’s something we can do about that.”

Elder Ilarion “Larry” Merculieff, who was born and raised on Saint Paul Island in the Bering Sea, told the crowd his people, the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, want to find solutions in solving climate change, which is affecting their land and way of life, he says.

“In my language, we greet each other every day saying ‘Aang waan,’ ‘Hello my other self.’ The indigenous people are saying in their message that unless we do this, unless we unify, unless we dissolve our separations, then we’re not going to find the answers and that’s guaranteed. And so this group actually represents exactly what the elders are saying to do, and that’s why I’m here,” he said.

The Rev. Curtis Karns of Fairbanks, with the Presbytery of Yukon which oversees 23 churches in Alaska, told the crowd that when he was boy, his family used to visit a lake near Delta Junction where a glacier once was. Islands dotted the lake, and old ice lenses held up the soil.

“When I was a boy I could see all these islands and the trees growing up out of the islands, and you didn’t see any of what you see now,” he said. “Now what you see is skeletons of branches sticking up out of the water and no islands because all of the ice lenses have melted and the islands sank, and of course that kills the trees, and you see these dead trees sticking up,”

The islands held for thousands of years and were inhabited by Natives for at least 8,000 years, he said. The ice lenses were always melting, but at a slower rate, he said.

Physics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Imam Dr. Ataur Chowdhury said he worries climate change will have a “devastating effect” on Bangladesh, where he was born, as well Mumbai.

“It is time for all of us to wake up,” he said.

Dr. Franz Mueter, an assistant professor at the Juneau Center of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, has studied the effects of environmental variability and climate change on fish populations in larger commercial fisheries of Alaska.

“We certainly have observed changes there as well, but there are enormous uncertainties about what might happen under continued climate warming, and those uncertainties alone certainly are calls for taking a pro-active approach in terms of the management or the stewardship of those resources,” Mueter said.

He added that he was hesitant at first to join the religious group, describing himself a secular humanist.

“As far as questions about the metaphysical world, that may be at odds with some or many of you here,” he said, but adding, “We all live in the real world, and we share the belief that caring for and preserving or defending the living, natural world is a universal value that we can all work towards and rally around.”

Mary Walker said she hoped the discussion would inspire Alaskans to stand in solidarity in taking action on climate change.

“As a person of faith, I take this responsibility very seriously, as should anyone with a moral conscience,” she said. “And it’s this moral obligation that should compel every nation, particularly those with the financial means to do so, to take action.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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