Christian Science Monitor  [Printer-friendly version]
October 27, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: "The region's elected officials and agencies
now address climate change here on the basis of the 'precautionary
principle' -- acknowledging that they do not know everything about
the long-range effects of global warming, but are taking steps now
before it's too late."]

By Brad Knickerbocker

ASHLAND, ORE. -- It's unlikely that Seattle's 605-foot Space Needle
will be under water any time soon, or that Alaska will become as
famous for its fruit trees and berries as Oregon is.

But there are growing indications that the Pacific Northwest, from
Oregon to British Columbia to Alaska, is warming up faster than
elsewhere on the planet -- a trend that's likely to accelerate,
according to scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Glaciers and snowpacks in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains are
shrinking. So is Arctic sea ice in Alaska, where the permafrost in
some areas is turning mushy. Record-setting temperatures in Anchorage
this summer reached a balmy 79 degrees F. Water levels in Puget Sound
are rising. Annual patters of stream flow are changing in ways that
could adversely impact irrigation, domestic water supplies, fish runs,
and hydropower production, while increasing the risk of forest fires
and tree-killing insects.

In Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, this week, agency
officials, scientists, tribal leaders, and others are participating in
major conferences addressing climate change.

"Even the most conservative scenarios show the climate of the Pacific
Northwest warming significantly more than was experienced during the
20th century," the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group
reported last week. The Puget Sound region warmed at a rate
"substantially greater" than that of Earth's average surface air
temperature, the scientists found.

Brad Ack, director of the Puget Sound Action Team, a partnership of
federal, state, and tribal agencies that commissioned the report,
likens what's happening to a "slow-motion natural disaster."

"This is often talked about as something that's going to happen," says
Mr. Ack. "But what this shows is that this is already happening. We're
well into climate change."

Economists in the region warn that this could come with a big price
tag. Global warming "is likely to impose significant economic costs,"
52 leading economists from around the country warned in a recent
letter to government and business officials in Oregon.

"The adjustments that businesses, households, and communities will
have to make are without precedent," the economists wrote. "Many
changes seem largely unavoidable, and some are clearly imminent."

That's mainly because of diminishing snowpacks due to warmer winter
temperatures. Snowpacks act as water "banks" throughout the region,
but smaller snowpacks mean reduced river and stream flows in the
summer, which negatively affect agriculture, forestry, tourism, and
hydropower -- major portions of Oregon's $121 billion economy.

Changes in nature from global warming also can exacerbate
environmental problems, especially the natural balance in ecosystems
and the wildlife they include.

"Climate change is an additional stress to systems that have already
been affected and changed by human activities," says Amy Snover, a
research scientist and member of the University of Washington's
Climate Impacts Group.

Politically, the region -- sometimes referred to as "Cascadia" -
appears to have heard the message.

Since February, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has been pushing his
colleagues in city halls around the country to sign the Mayors Climate
Protection Agreement.

That pact commits them to meet or exceed the Kyoto Protocol standards,
reducing greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
So far, 186 US mayors -- from Issaquah, Wash. to Laredo, Texas to
Schenectady, N.Y. -- have signed on.

While it still relies heavily on hydropower dams for electricity
(which have environmental problems of a different sort -- mainly
profound damage to ecosystems that support endangered salmon and other
wildlife), Washington State has been building wind farms in its wide-
open spaces east of the Cascade Mountains.

In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) is pushing state lawmakers and
reluctant auto dealers to adopt California's tougher emission
standards for motor vehicles, enacted last year. If Oregon takes that
step, Washington State, which shares the market for cars and trucks
with its neighbor to the south, will do so also.

Portland, Ore. and surrounding Multnomah County have nudged carbon
dioxide emissions to a level below 1990, a first for any major
American city.

With help from two new light-rail public transit lines, the planting
of some 750,000 carbon-absorbing trees, financial incentives for
energy-efficient "green" buildings, and weatherization of more than
10,000 apartments and houses, per capita emissions in Portland dropped
13 percent over the past 10 years. Nationally, there's been an
increase of about 1 percent per capita.

Mayor Tom Potter, the city's former police chief, drives a Prius
hybrid and promotes Portland as a bike-friendly city with 750 miles of
bicycle paths.

Still, officials and scientists around the region agree that more
needs to be done.

"We can no longer stop this," says Ack. "We can hope to ameliorate it
by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, but we cannot stop this. So
either we ignore it and suffer, or we prepare for it and suffer less."

Urged on by the group of economists, the region's elected officials
and agencies now address climate change here on the basis of the
"precautionary principle" -- acknowledging that they do not know
everything about the long-range effects of global warming, but are
taking steps now before it's too late.

"It's about hedging," says Dr. Snover. "It's about risk management.
It's about acknowledging that uncertainty is not going to go away,
expecting to meet surprises, being prepared for that change and
designing flexibility right in."

Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor