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Eugene Weekly : News : 10.19.06

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As Above, So Below

Mayor sees parallels with a melting Alaska town.


Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, along with more than 30 other mayors from 17 states, attended the "Strengthening Our Cities: Mayors Responding to Climate Change" conference in Girdwood, Alaska, Sept. 16-18. Conference sponsors Alaska Conservation Foundation, the Municipality of Anchorage, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability paid for her trip. In one presentation, Shishmaref Mayor Stanley Tocktoo described how global warming is affecting his village on Alaska's west coast.

Tell me a little bit about how you wound up going to this conference in the first place.

I was actually one of the first hundred mayors who signed onto the Kyoto Agreement with an interest in the effects of climate change and what local communities could do to mitigate the effects of climate change. Since that time, I've been with the U.S. Conference of Mayors on their energy committee and I went to the Sundance Summit on Climate Change – I was one of the few mayors invited to that. I've been working on a Sustainable Business Initiative here which has getting to carbon neutrality as one of the recommendations and that is a response to climate change as well.

This thing, my trip to Alaska, the conference was called Strengthening Our Cities: Mayors Responding to Global Climate Change. It was in Alaska, from September 16 to September 18. Again, it was a small group of mayors that have been identified nationally as wanting to work on the climate change issue, and I thought it was a great opportunity for me to actually go see what's already happening as a result of climate change. It gives me the ability to say I've been there and I've looked at it.

I took Friday to get there, was there on Saturday and came back on Sunday, so it was a quick trip. I went to Anchorage, and part of Anchorage is Girdwood, Alaska, where we had the conference.

One of the first presentations we had there that had the most effect on me was from the mayor of Shishmaref, Alaska, Mayor Stanley Tocktoo. Mayor Tocktoo's town is right on the permafrost, and the permafrost is melting underneath the town. A couple things are happening right now in his town, and one is that the freshwater lakes that they depend on there are now soaking down through the permafrost because there's no permafrost to hold the lakes in place. Secondly, permafrost helps protect them against the impact of the ocean, and since it's melting, the ocean is eroding all the land underneath it. They are actually going to have to move, and they have been there for thousands of years, and they're totally dependent on a life that interacts with the ocean, and they're going to have to move inland. Another thing he told us was, they actually found a ray beached in their area. Rays don't exist in extremely cold waters. That's another sign of severe climate change. He wanted to talk to us, not only to tell us the story of what's already happening where he is, but to enlist our help in getting federal help for their town. They need funding to move.

So that was very impactful. The next day we got a tour of the Kenai Fjords, where we actually could see all the eroding glaciers. They also took us to see beetle infestations in their forest. In Oregon, we have beetle infestations, but the biggest thing that's happened there is that their beetles used to be on two-year cycles. Now, as it's warming up, they're on one-year cycles, which means you get twice as much infestation and destruction.

The loss of freshwater lakes, the infestation of insects, the melting of the permafrost, the erosion of glaciers are all happening right there. It's sort of like the canary in the mine – they're an indication of the impact that global warming can have on all of us.


EW: Is Alaska harder hit than most of the rest of the world at this point?

Well, Siberia, too, but I just haven't had the chance to visit Siberia. Greenland's melting — one of the effects of melting huge masses of glacial ice is it causes the rise of the ocean. The rise of the ocean is already having its effect all the way across the world. The possibility of the effects it will eventually have on places like the coast of California or the coast of Florida – those are the things that we need to be paying attention to right now. It's starting from the north. We're experiencing more in terms of Greenland and Iceland and Alaska and Siberia and all those far northern places because they're getting dramatically warmer. In the south of Spain this summer, it was reported that their water's going up a couple inches a year. You can grasp the significance of all of that.


EW: Any examples in Eugene, or elsewhere in Oregon?

There's lots of scientific evidence. All you have to do is go on the web. There's scientific studies, huge numbers of them, and they all point to the fact that climate change is real.

Of course, the Gore film An Inconvenient Truth and all of those kinds of things, there's really no scientific evidence that does anything but back that up, and it's just a matter of how fast the impact is going to occur and what we will do to do our part to try to reduce the effects of carbon emissions.

Cities now all across this country are saying, "If our federal government's not going to do something, then we will try to do something from the local level out." We are working on it here in Eugene.


Did the people who spoke at the conference give you and the other mayors suggestions on how to help with the global warming problem in your respective towns?

Well, certainly most of us have been attending things that have been giving us tools for doing that for quite a while. At this one, Rocky Anderson, who's a pretty well known mayor from Utah, from Salt Lake City, did a presentation on a lot of the things that Salt Lake City's been doing, but these are things that we've been working on a long time.

Certainly, our Bus Rapid Transit is an effort to get people out of their cars, and that reduces carbon emissions. Our city's transition to using vehicles with biofuels and hybrid vehicles is another thing that affects carbon emissions, and certainly as a community we are using many more vehicles. We talk about these issues all the time. One of the things that we're putting forward with the Sustainable Business Initiative — this is not specific to climate change, but it affects climate change because our recommendations to council that we took last week are that we have an office of sustainability in city government, that we commit to supporting sustainable practices, that we have a commission to expand sustainability in the community, that we purchase and use products and technologies, all of these things affect carbon neutrality and reduce global warming.


So if we're able to reduce our carbon emissions significantly, will that reverse global warming at all, or just stop or slow what's already going on?

I think most people feel that the problem is so huge and has been such a long time coming that we really don't know. We're only a group of cities, we're only one country and we live in a globe where everybody's affecting this, but I think we all feel that if this is manmade, it can be man-repaired, and it's up to each of us and our communities in combination to do whatever we can to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. And then we're all going to have to figure out how to address those changes as they do occur. That's going to be a big challenge and there will be winners and losers in that.


Anything else you'd like to add?

I think Eugene has always been a very environmentally concerned community. I think they understand the challenge of global warming and finite resources and want their government to respond to it effectively and as quickly as we can, so we're trying hard to do that.


Eugene's not having some of the problems that Girdwood, Alaska is having.

But we could. Many people would say that the temperatures we had this summer are inordinately high. We had days of 110. That's not usual here in Eugene. Warming is happening all across our country, and with warming means as in Alaska, different behavior and impacts by insects. It's been reported that the pollination rhythms between certain insects and plants has already been disrupted. We're seeing species show up in places they've never showed up before. We're just beginning to learn about the impact, but we know it's happening very, very rapidly.

[The conference] was a great opportunity and I really appreciated being able to see and feel the impact of how that actually does affect people's lives. I think it's an important tool for me as mayor to be able to share that experience, because we are seeing only the light touches of global warming thus far here in Oregon. Just think about it if we don't get snow. We depend on snow for our fresh water. The impact we'll feel here is going to be just as strong as felt anywhere else, and would change the climate of our state.


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