Our view: Alaska knows well the stakes in debate on global warming

Here at the front lines

April 21, 2009 

Erosion claims a Shishmaref house in 2006.


It is most appropriate for Alaska to be hosting this week's Indigenous People's Global Summit on Climate Change here in Anchorage. Alaska's indigenous people know well a cruel irony of global warming: Those who are suffering the most from a warming climate are those who contribute least to the problem -- and they generally have the fewest resources to cope with the damage. Warming trends in the world's Arctic are undeniable. Sea ice is shrinking, giving storms more chance to pound unprotected shorelines and eat away at low-lying communities. Melting permafrost causes homes and other buildings to heave and twist.

Hunting traditional foods becomes more difficult, as tundra melts earlier in the spring and freezes later in the fall. More open water allows sea mammals, a key subsistence food, to roam farther from the reach of local hunters.

The more the Arctic warms, the worse the problem gets. Open ocean water absorbs far more heat than do ice and snow, which reflect most incoming light. Melting permafrost releases methane that had been trapped within, adding more of the potent greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

The reality of climate change is well-known to those who live at the front lines in the Arctic. This week's conference can help the world learn what changing climate is doing to indigenous people in the temperate and tropical zones, as well. Their first-hand perspective, based on hundreds or even thousands of years in a particular place, is worth heeding.

Even if the more densely inhabited parts of the globe do not yet feel indisputable damage from global warming, it is a problem of global scale. It will require world-wide effort to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and to deliver financial help to cope with the damage.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants if Congress doesn't step in and do the job. Congressional action would be better, since Congress has more flexibility in crafting controls. Congress can also make sure there is money for dealing with both the damage directly inflicted by warming and the economic fallout of tighter pollution controls.

Alaska is already at the front lines of dealing with the changes wrought by global warming. This week, Alaska is also at the front lines of the campaign to demand appropriate global action.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaska has a lot at stake in dealing with global warming.

Rumor of bear

There's a rumor of bear in my Eagle River neighborhood.

That's enough to make me wary walking with the kids and the dog in the woods behind the house.

I've never seen the black bear that some of my neighbors have, although a few years ago one neighbor showed me bear hair on a fence post and we cleaned up some trash the bear had dragged into the woods just beyond his back fence.

The bear's visitation had been recent, so the neighbor stood shotgun while I handled the trash.

Can I live with the bears? Yup, as long as they respect the fence and don't threaten me or mine.

But I share some of my oldest son's sentiments, expressed when we hiked the Crow Pass Trail four years ago. We saw scat but no bears. Still, unarmed as we were, my son said he didn't like not being the apex predator.

Rudy Wittshirk, an outdoorsman and occasional commentary writer in these pages, once told me that growing up in New York made him a better outdoorsman -- street smarts translates to trail smarts, because the common theme is awareness. Look, listen, comprehend. Always pay attention. Don't surprise anything more dangerous than a spruce hen.

My awareness isn't as schooled as Rudy's, but I'll still take the kids in the woods out back until the mosquitoes get biblical. So I don't care to know the bear as more than a rumor.

-- Frank Gerjevic

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