With the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change, there is no more pussy-footing around it; greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are creating ecological, economic and social challenges around the world, including Alaska, which is ground zero for global warming.
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Warming here in Juneau? With all the snow and the late spring, it hardly feels like global warming. But it is. One of the major symptoms of climate change is more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. That's why the term "climate change" is a better descriptor of what's going on than global warming.
In Alaska, we hear about climate-change problems everyday. Alaska's northern communities are seeing beach erosion, deep permafrost thaws and receding ice. All this wrecks havoc on infrastructure. In Anchorage, officials report shifting weather patterns are disrupting air travel, a significant issue for such an important transportation hub.
Changes in climate patterns and rising temperatures have caused a significant increase in the frequency of wildfire and intensity, as well as an unprecedented increase in insect outbreaks that increase fuel loads. Alaska witnessed record-setting fire seasons in 2004-05, burning more than 11 million acres and costing more than $160 million to battle. On the Kenai Peninsula and around Anchorage, the spruce bark beetle has cost millions in property damage.
Across rural Alaska, traditional hunting patterns are disrupted as animal movements shift in response to the changing climate. In Bristol Bay, unfamiliar weather patterns and the early arrival of marine mammals are throwing the annual fishing and hunting cycles off. Lake Iliamna is freezing later and later, making travel difficult. Low-lying towns are suffering increased floods, as with Koyukuk's recent floods within the 100-year flood plain.
Commercial and sport fishing, two of Alaska's economic mainstays, are taking hits, too. Temperatures in Kenai Peninsula streams now consistently exceed Alaska's standard to protect salmon-spawning areas. Diseased salmon are common in the Yukon River. The Bering Sea is seeing lower crab productivity as more Arctic ice melts each year. In Southeast Alaska, the 2006 pink-salmon harvest was dramatically lower than expected due in large part to the warm temperatures of 2004, when the parents of the 2006 season would have been affected.
Finally, Gov. Sarah Palin and the Legislature are giving us glimpses of hope and of economic opportunity. Palin's choice to create a climate change sub-Cabinet position to address ways to reduce our contribution to the problem and mitigate its effects is visionary and sensible. This, with the renewable energy development fund (House Bill 152 and Senate Bill 96) currently being considered in the Legislature, will provide some essential tools to address this pressing challenge. These efforts will enable Alaska to join the ranks of other states actively charting a course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It is important to note that many other states found policies addressing climate change were not a burden on commerce. Instead, they presented economic opportunities. Some states are using action on climate change to position themselves in new markets related to climate action: producing and selling alternative fuels, attracting high-tech businesses and selling carbon-reduction credits. Even BP is looking at climate change as a way to make money.
Alaska can do all this and more. Though we are, sadly, the poster state for climate change impacts, we can also be global leaders in finding creative and ingenious ways to work toward solutions, develop renewable energy technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is much to be gained from taking on this challenge.
As Alaskans, we pride ourselves on our ruggedness and our ability to get any job done, no matter how tough. We walked the path to statehood, figured out how to build the oil pipeline, and now climate change is that next grand challenge calling for the best from Alaskans. The time to act is now; let's pass the Renewable Energy Fund before the Legislature heads home in May and get Palin's climate change sub-Cabinet rolling.
Kate Troll splits her time between Juneau and Anchorage. She is the executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance.
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