Mayors gather in Alaska to witness effects of global warming first hand, pave way for change

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Portage Glacier, a major Alaska tourist destination near Anchorage's southern edge, has retreated so far it no longer can be seen from a multimillion-dollar visitors center built in 1986.

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For the last 12 years, visitors have had to cross a lake to see the ice that looks sky blue on a cloudy day.

This weekend, at a resort a few miles away from the glacier, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is hosting municipal leaders from 17 states for a firsthand look at the effects of global warming on the northern landscape.

Mayors will spend three days discussing how they can reduce their cities' contributions to warming and how cities can adjust to changes scientists predict will spread to other states.

"We need to take concrete steps now to make our communities more resilient to climate change, and we have a responsibility to put in place cost-saving, efficient strategies to reduce our emissions," Begich said.

Begich was a skeptic last year when he attended a mayors conference on the same subject hosted by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, the U.N.-sponsored International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives and actor Robert Redford. But as Begich listened, speaker after speaker noted Alaska as "ground zero" for seeing the effects of warming, he said.

The message clicked with what he has seen in his own community, from the glacier to the bark beetles that have devastated spruce trees in south-central Alaska, making them more susceptible to wildfire.

The Anchorage meeting is billed as the first at a location where climate change is already having an effect.

"Instead of slides and DVDs, they can see some of the effects in Alaska," Begich said.

Nome Mayor Denise Michaels will describe how her city's marine environment has changed. Like other communities on Alaska's northwest coast, Nome is lashed each winter by fierce Bering Sea storms. Warming has meant fewer natural barriers.

"We're noticing the ground's not freezing like it used to," she said.

The city has had to put in place a mitigation plan that includes warning residents when storms hit.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors signed on as a conference sponsor this year.

"Mayors have been leading the way on this issue through local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Tom Cochran, executive director. "This meeting will provide the additional assistance needed to keep cities moving forward as we strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming."

Begich said mayors can drive national policy through local governments.

As of Sept. 8, 294 mayors representing more than 49.2 million Americans had signed a Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement spearheaded by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and passed by the mayors conference in 2005. The agreement pledges to reduce global warming carbon dioxide pollution in their cities to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

More than 30 mayors from all regions of the country are scheduled to participate in the Anchorage conference. Begich said they have been active in energy or alternative energy issues or simply active in the organization.

They will hear from representatives of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. The organization suggests alternative fuels for municipal vehicle fleets, improved public transportation and energy-efficient light fixtures. It urges countering "urban heat islands" with rooftop gardens and white roofs.

Mayors visiting Anchorage will see what that city has done.

At the city's landfill, a methane gas recovery system is under construction and expected to be on line at the end of next year. The system will reduce emissions and has the potential to heat 2,500 homes in the city, Begich said.

The municipality is looking at wind power with a local utility and investigating uses of recovered cooking oil, he said. It's investigating how to make a new convention center a "more green" building.

"It may be a little more capital up front, but the operational costs will be less," he said.

Mayors will tour a mountainside neighborhood where insects thriving in warmer temperatures have killed spruce trees, making them a fire hazard. The city has responded with a program to create fire breaks and encourage homeowners to remove dead or dying trees near houses.

"It has an impact," Begich said of warming. "That's what we want to show."

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