Climate bills should provide funds for Alaska to deal with impacts of warming

December 7, 2009 

The climate talks in Copenhagen are upon us, and it appears that the United States has little to take there to demonstrate any commitment to controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report notes that greenhouse gas concentrations continue to track the upper bounds of IPCC projections-a worst-case scenario.

We should understand something by now. With climate change, we have three choices: prevention, adaptation, and suffering. The more prevention, the less adaptation we'll need and the less suffering we'll experience. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it's clear that so much disruption to the global climate is already set in motion that we are also going to have to manage for a climate-changed future. We need to adopt and implement, in a more than random way, adaptation strategies.

Most Alaskans are aware that Alaska is warming at twice the global average and that the effects of climate change are being felt in large and small ways in our state -- especially in rural communities where people's lives are closely tied to the environment and fish and wildlife resources. Coasts are eroding, wildlife and fish are moving farther north, forests and tundra burn, invasive species compete with native ones.

A largely overlooked element of legislation pending in Congress would create a funding mechanism to help safeguard wildlife and natural resources --and the people who depend on them -- from global warming and its "evil twin," ocean acidification. The House-passed bill (ACES, H.R. 2454) and the version being considered in the Senate (S. 1733) both include such components. A third bill (S. 1933), introduced in the Senate, is known as the Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Act. This legislation is targeted to funding adaptation strategies that will help buffer the worst effects of global warming and protect both ecosystems and people. As proposed, funds would be distributed to existing programs and agencies (no new bureaucracy) and spent in accord with science-based adaptation plans.

With so much at stake in Alaska and so many eligible entities (Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Fish and Game, tribes, and more, including the university through its research programs) Alaska is well-positioned to benefit. The Governor's Climate Change Sub-cabinet has already developed an adaptation plan that languishes for lack of funding. Examples that might be funded would be taking climate change into account in fisheries management and assisting fishing communities, preparing for increased wildfire risk, maintaining salmon stream flows and shade, reducing the introduction and spread of invasive species, and adjusting harvest regulations to accommodate subsistence needs when climate change hinders access or the care of meat. Such strategies will assist with the resilience of both the physical environment and our communities-and will provide jobs for Alaskans.

Sen. Mark Begich has introduced a number of Arctic-related bills, including the Arctic Climate Adaptation Act (S. 1566). Certainly, he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are well-traveled in Alaska and knowledgeable about the climate change challenges to our people, lands, waters, and resources. As Alaskans, our two senators are uniquely qualified to help educate the rest of the country about the consequences of climate change and to show the world that America is serious about effectively addressing global warming.

And while the support of adaptation efforts by Senators Murkowski and Begich will be vitally important, their leadership in securing a substantial reduction of greenhouse gasses is essential. The harm caused by climate change respects no political affiliation or partisanship. Transitioning the United States to a clean, renewable-energy future is critical not only to protecting the environment that sustains us but also to maintaining economic and national security.

That is where the real leadership is required.

Nancy Lord, Alaska's Writer Laureate, is completing a book related to climate change.

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