The bright side of global warming

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008

One the one hand, two entire villages are in danger of being swallowed by a newly encroaching sea. On the other hand, the state could stand to profit from global warming - from increased tourism and research dollars, and the expansion of commercial shipping into the Arctic.

Both are conclusions drawn in a final report of a legislative commission on climate change's impacts on Alaska. The group of two House members, two state senators and seven public members took a year and a half to investigate the topic, working with government agencies and the public all over the state. Results were released March 17.

Environmental activists such as Jim Ayers of Oceana, an environmental group based in Juneau, were disappointed that the report focused on adapting to the results of climate change, not minimizing the effects or preventing them.

"In a word, it's goofy," he said.

Focusing on the positive effects of global warming is an inappropriate attempt to "make lemonade" out of a serious problem, Ayers said.

He called it a "don't worry, we'll adapt" approach. Meanwhile, the population exacerbates global warming, he said.

House Majority Leader Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, one of the two legislators on the commission, said he knew the group's focus on adaptation disappointed environmentalists. But he called it a kind of triage. The commission was faced with far too much information on a controversial subject.

"We didn't want to be a notch on the belt of one group of scientists, and not get to things we thought we could influence - road construction, Kivalina, drilling seasons," he said.

Samuels said he didn't want to overstate the positive effects of climate change.

"Most of the effects are negative," he said. "We have no illusion about that."

The commission visited the communities faced with the most dramatic effects of climate change.

He heard elders saying, "'I've never seen two crops of berries (in one year) in my whole life, and I've been here for 70 years,'" he said.

"We saw the sea wall in Kivalina that lasted for less than one season," he said.

The villages of Kivalina and Shishmaref have an estimated 10 to 15 years left at their current locations because of their disappearing shorelines, attributed to an increase in global temperatures.

But concrete suggestions are difficult to make, he said. He'd consider the commission's work a success if policymakers begin to consider climate change in their choices, and if the report helped put the problem in the public eye.

As for profits from climate change, perhaps some of them could come to Juneau.

"The commission considers that longer and warmer Arctic summers will help increase the number of tourists coming to Alaska, especially by cruise ship," the report said.

The report doesn't say when those longer summers might be coming.

Executive Director Lorene Palmer of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau said she wouldn't be planning for global warming immediately.

One change that is relatively swift is at the Mendenhall Glacier. It shrinks back by 100 to 150 feet a year, and has been receding since the Little Ice Age, which ended roughly in the mid-19th century.

Juneau is marketed for its easy accessibility to glaciers. Palmer is concerned about climate change that would hasten its shrinkage, she said.

"We would have to rethink the Mendenhall Glacier, and whether we can use it as such an important attraction," she said.

On the other hand, she said, it also might bring in tourists eager to see it before it disappears altogether.

• Contact reporter KateGolden at 523-2276 or

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