Dare I begin by saying that climate change has become a “hot” topic?
I decided to choose this issue for my column for a couple of reasons. First, RDC cosponsored a business roundtable discussion of climate change as part of the Alaska Forum on the Environment conference that was held in Anchorage in February. Some of our members questioned our involvement in that forum.
In addition, I was named to the Climate Impact Assessment Commission set up by the Legislature last year. The commission owes its creation to Rep. Reggie Joule of Kotzebue and is ably chaired by Rep. Ralph Samuels of Anchorage.
As a member of that commission, I have by necessity been forced to digest quite a bit of material about climate change. My wife, Alexandra McClanahan, has incredible internet skills and manages to furnish me with articles from all over the world on this subject. Also, helping with my continuing education is Tim Benintendi who works for Rep. Samuels and is the lead staff member for the commission.
In addition, we have received presentations from scientists, government officials, and representatives of interest groups and members of the general public. I have also attended several meetings and conferences devoted to the subject of climate change. The information I have received as a result of this educational process has ranged from the intellectually very challenging to the amusing.
Mostly, what I now have are questions rather than answers. Some of those questions are as follows.
Is it getting warmer?
The answer to this question seems to be “Yes.” Although the recent six weeks of cold weather in Alaska may lead some to doubt this answer, I believe winters are less severe than when I moved to Alaska 40 years ago. Also, we have had warmer summers in recent years. The reduction in the arctic icepack would seem to be one of many examples of this warming trend.
Will it continue to get warmer?
This question is more difficult to answer. It is clear that many scientists believe that the earth will continue to warm, and some of their models show very dramatic and, in some cases, disastrous results for humanity. I am inherently suspicious of models, be they climatic, economic or any other form that try to predict what will happen 50 or 100 years from now, but much of the debate and some of the hysteria is based on these models.
It is probably worth noting that there are also some sets of circumstances that could lead to a cooling trend. Also, a warmer Alaska could have some positive repercussions for industries such as agriculture and tourism.
Who is to blame?
This question seems to spark the most debate. Many point to carbon dioxide emitted from industrial and other human activities as the chief culprit. However, others have blamed cows and the methane gas they emit from beneath their tails; and some have blamed the sun, citing increased temperatures on Mars as the basis for their theory. Methane gas released as the result of melting permafrost is another suspect in the lineup which contains many other potential villains.
I have two thoughts about this question. The earth has experienced many warming and cooling trends in the past. We need to accept the fact that nature is not static.
However, having six billion human beings on the earth is bound to have some impact on the world around us. After all we emit carbon dioxide every time we exhale. The debate ultimately is not about whether humans are responsible for some of this change, but rather is there anything we as humans can and should do about it?
Why should we at RDC care?
We need look only as far as the quest by some environmental groups to list the polar bear as a threatened or endangered species to understand why we should care. I won’t repeat the information contained elsewhere in this issue of the Resource Review, but the basis for listing the polar bear is the loss of habitat due to the decrease in the arctic ice cap. Listing the polar bear won’t halt the retreat of the ice cap, but it may have significant impacts on development projects in the north.
There are other good reasons for RDC to pay attention to this issue. Warming trends could curtail the exploratory drilling season on the North Slope, making the cost of finding more oil even more expensive than it is today. Hot, dry summers could destroy vast quantities of potentially harvestable timber. Loss of permafrost in interior and northern Alaska can mean some major new expenses for government to repair roads and airports. Warming waters could substantially change the habitat for some of our fisheries resources, causing the resource to move or be substantially diminished.
However, the main reason we should care is that the issue has now gotten the attention of governments at the local, state, national and international level. Many are demanding action now “before it is too late” or “because it is too late.” When governments see a crisis their tendency is to overreact, and the opportunities for governments to overreact expand exponentially with an issue as complicated as global warming. Many innocent people and projects can get caught up in any overly ambitious response by government.
So no matter what one believes about climate change, we at RDC must stay involved or risk being fried by our own inaction concerning this very “hot” topic.