My turn: Alaska must face scenario of 'climate change refugees'

Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In two recent international news articles about climate change ("How much more proof is needed for people to act" and "Ignoring the future - the psychology of denial"), the importance of facing major issues that will confront the future of the human species were emphasized.

Climate change is indeed an issue that is on everyone's mind today, and while Juneau seems to be far removed from the experts who recently made their way to Copenhagen to try to hammer our blueprints to prevent global warming from having a doomsday impact on humankind, Alaska will be on the front line of these issues.

Despite most observers thinking that solutions lie in mitigation ideas, there are a growing number of climatologists and scientists who believe that the A-word - adaptation - must be confronted head-on, too. The fact is, despite the head-in-the-sand protestations of climate denialists such as Marc Morano in Washington, D.C., or former Gov. Sarah Palin, we cannot stop climate change or global warming.

The Earth's atmosphere has already passed the tipping point, and in the next 500 years, temperatures will rise considerably, sea levels will rise considerably and millions, even billions, of people from the tropical and temperate zones of the Earth will be forced to migrate north in search of food, fuel and shelter. This is where Alaska, and Alaskans, will play a central role.

By the year 2500, Alaska could be home to millions of climate refugees from the Lower 48 and Central and South America who will have migrated north, seeking safe harbor from the devastating impact of global warming in those future times.

Many parts of the Alaska coastline will be under water, and Juneau will find itself home to new kinds of visitors from the Lower 48 and beyond. They won't be coming on cruise ships or airplanes, since there will be no fuel for such services. They will be coming by road, on foot and bicycle. Prepare yourselves.

Alaska must be prepared for the worst-case scenario. By 2500, millions, billions of people will have been forced to leave their home countries in the tropical and temperate zones and migrate north en masse to faraway northern regions to find shelter in United Nations-funded climate refuges in places such as Alaska, Russia and Canada. People from India, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines will make their way to Juneau and further north to Anchorage and Fairbanks. It won't be a pretty picture.

When I asked acclaimed British scientist James Lovelock if such a scenario for Alaska was likely, he said in an e-mail: "It may very well happen, yes."

Humans cannot engineer our way out of global warming, although scientists who believe in geo-engineering have offered their theories on how to do it. There are no easy fixes. Humankind has put too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the result of the industrial revolution that gave us trains, plans and automobiles - and much more to live comfortable and trendy lives - and now there is so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that the Earth cannot recover.

Forget trying to be more "green" in our daily lives. Alaska, like the rest of the world, is now doomed to a very bleak future. There will be millions of climate refugees seeking shelter in Alaska and Canada (and in far south places such as New Zealand, Tasmania and Antarctica as well.)

Meetings in Copenhagen and Rio de Janiero and at the U.N. building in Manhattan will not stop global warming. What we need to focus on now is preparing future generations for what our world will become in the next 500 years and how best to survive it. The Alaska Legislature needs to start thinking about these issues, too. There is a very strong possibility that the Northern White House will be located in Juneau, perhaps taking over the Governor's Mansion.

For the next 100 years or so, life will go on as normal in Juneau, so don't worry too much. There is nothing to worry about now. For the next 100 years, the local department stores will continue to hawk their trendy items, international computer firms will continue to launch their latest cell phones and tech gadgets, and airline companies will continue to offer passengers quick passage here and there for business and for pleasure.

But in the next 500 years, according to Lovelock and otther scientists who are not afraid to think outside the box, things are going to get bad. Unspeakably bad.

Those of us who are alive today won't suffer, and the next few generations of humans will be fine, too. The big troubles will probably start around 2200 - Lovelock says sooner - and last for some 300 years or so. By 2500, Alaska will be home to the U.S. Congress, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, and the Lower 48 will be uninhabited, as will most of the countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe.

We are entering uncharted waters, and as the waters rise and the temperatures go up as well, future generations will have some important choices to make: where to live, how to live, how to grow food, how to power their climate refugee settlements, how to plan and how to pray. Alaska will be on the front lines of this new world. The question is: will Alaska be ready?

• Dan E. Bloom is a former editor of the Capital City Weekly who has been living in Asia since 1991. He can be reached at bikolang@gmail.com.



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