Teen petition asks Congress to act on climate change

Letter calls for action

Posted: Monday, April 24, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Six Alaska teenagers will descend on the nation's capital this week with a message to Congress: Do something to combat the effects of global warming in the 49th state.

The teens, three from rural communities and three from Anchorage, will deliver more than 5,000 signatures from Alaska teens - and only teens - who signed a "Letter to our Leaders" asking for relief from melting permafrost, eroding coastlines, shrinking glaciers and outbreaks of insects that harsh winters formerly held in check.

"I think it's the most pressing issue Alaska has to face," said Verner Wilson, 19, a Yup'ik Eskimo from Dillingham now attending Brown University in Rhode Island.

Wilson and other members of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, a high school program of the National Wildlife Federation, organized the signature drive. The group picks a cause every year - recycling, cruise ship pollution, toxic chemicals have been picked in the past - then launches school, community or state advocacy projects.

After choosing global warming for 2006, students reviewed research on warming in Alaska and anecdotal evidence from Alaska Native elders.

More than 5,000 Alaska teenagers have signed a letter calling for action on global warming. The letter was originally written by Verner Wilson, 19, of Dillingham:

"As members of Alaska's next generation, we are experiencing firsthand the harmful effects of global warming. Scientific evidence clearly indicates that the warming occurring now is outside normal climatic variations. Our Elders' traditional knowledge confirms it. Eroding villages, rapidly melting glaciers, beetle outbreaks, reduced salmon runs, and thawing permafrost are examples of ways in which global warming is dramatically affecting our lives.

"We ask you, the leaders who represent us, to do everything in your power to minimize the negative effects that global warming is having on us, our families, and our cultures. We can reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases without hurting our economy. We will be around to experience the consequences of global warming for many years to come, and perhaps have children of our own. That is why we need you to take action today.

"Please be a leader in addressing global warming. Support the use of renewable energy in Alaska. Support local and national legislation to reduce emissions. These are essential steps to protect Alaska's cultures, resources and economy."

Data provided by federal agencies has contributed to their cause. In 2005, Alaska saw a record low amount of sea ice, the natural habitat of polar bears and a protective barrier to coastal Alaska communities against harsh winter storms.

The National Climatic Data Center reported 11 million forest acres burned in Alaska the past two summers, the largest and third-largest amounts on record. Forest ecologists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks say warmer, drier summers resulted in more acreage susceptible to lighting strikes.

Tim Treuer, 17, a senior at West High School in Anchorage and a cross country skier, said warming has canceled races.

"A lot of winter opportunities, they're not as available," he said.

But that's nothing compared to the effects his rural peers have reported, he said.

Charlee Lockwood, 17, a Yu'pik Eskimo from Saint Michael, on a small Norton Sound island 125 miles southeast of Nome, said she has seen homes damaged by severe winter storms and erosion. The damage reminded her of erosion in Shishmaref, 225 miles to the northwest on Bering Strait, which resulted in that community voting to relocate.

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"I realized that all the effects they were talking about were happening in my hometown too," Lockwood said.

Wilson experienced record high temperatures when his family made one of its annual summer treks to fish camp.

"It was unheard of - 90-degree weather in Clark's Point. It was unbelievable."

Elders spoke of weather patterns hurting berry crops. Wilson was moved to write a 192-word letter to the editor that was published in his hometown newspaper.

"I thought I needed to take action. We're not going to be the ones affected. Future generations are. It's too important not to take any action," he said.

"Verner's Letter" became a rallying point for other teens. Alaska Youth for Environmental Action members decided to get other teens to sign.

A group adviser, Polly Carr, said the students collected signatures from teens in at least 103 Alaska communities.

Lockwood, who attends Mount Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka that serves mostly rural students, spoke to high school classes at communities on Prince of Wales Island and in Fairbanks. Other students at Mount Edgecumbe carried petitions when they traveled to their home communities on breaks.

Students carried petitions on basketball, debate and forensics trips, Carr said. She figures the 5,000 signatures represent just less than 10 percent of Alaska's teenage population.

"A couple of teachers tried to sign it," Carr said. "They had to cross them out."

On the Washington trip, the teens will not push specific legislation.

They will ask congressmen to back a national cap-and-trade greenhouse gas program limiting growth of carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions and requiring producers who exceed certain amounts to buy credits from companies that have lowered emissions.

The teens will call for higher fuel economy standards for vehicles and incentives for renewable energy.

The teens may not have a receptive audience in the Alaska delegation.

Alaska's only U.S. representative, Republican Don Young, said last week the state is warming but natural occurrences, not humans, are likely the reason.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has attributed warming to cyclical geophysical forces.

Wilson is hopeful.

"They're our legislators," he said. "They have the decision-making power that will affect us in the future."

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