Alaska Concludes Conference on Climate Costs

A three-day conference on climate change concludes in Anchorage. Officials predict the economic effects of global warming will cost the state billions of dollars.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The state of Alaska is getting first hand experience of global warming's dramatic environmental affects. But as scientists focus on the natural world, government and business leaders are starting to take a hard look at the economic consequences.

Elizabeth Arnold has more.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: More than a thousand scientists, government officials and tribal leaders met to discuss climate change this past week in Anchorage. Testimony at the gathering ranged from researchers explaining the finer points of ocean acidification to Alaskan natives asking for help, as their villages literally erode into the sea.

Unidentified Man: We have serious problems with our area sinking. We built the school on the highest ground. You know, with these environmental changes it has sunk.

ARNOLD: Coastal erosion, melting permafrost, fires and flooding have all been in the headlines up here. But Alaska's government, business and industry leaders are just starting to think about another result of all this warming.

Ms. FRAN ULMER (Director, Institute of Social and Economic Research): Climate change will cost Alaskans money.

ARNOLD: Fran Ulmer is the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, which is about to release the price tag of the impacts just on Alaska's public infrastructure, and it's in the billions of dollars. While state leaders were at first concerned that new regulation of industry air emissions might hurt local economies, it pales in comparison with the projected cost of repairing roads and airport runways, rebuilding ports and bridges, and relocating entire coastal communities.

Ms. ULMER: A lot of the economic issues that have been discussed in terms of climate change and global warming have been people saying, we can't afford to do anything about global warming because the impacts on our economy will be negative. Well, the impacts on our economy from doing nothing will also be negative.

ARNOLD: The backbone of Alaska's economy is oil, a major contributor to greenhouse gases. But even the industry here is recognizing the downside of inaction. While disappearing sea ice may mean new opportunities to explore further north, a shorter drilling season due to melting ice roads has already limited production.

A number of resource development and industry organizations attended the conference, where Terri Tamminen, who helps create an emissions reduction plan for California, was a keynote speaker. Tamminen says it would be pivotal if an energy producing state like Alaska would cut the amount of greenhouse gases it produces.

Mr. TERRI TAMMINEN (Strategist, Energy and the Environment): It's man bites dog. It's why do people pay so much attention to Governor Schwarzenegger. It's not just because he's doing great things on environmental protection and climate change, but because he's a Republican. If Alaska were to take a leadership role in its own energy consumption, I suspect the world would take note and things would change elsewhere.

ARNOLD: Surprisingly, a study released at the conference indicates that Alaskans emit more greenhouse gases per person than any other state. But that finding is skewed because it's the state's huge industries that are generating CO2 emissions disproportionate to its tiny population.

The notion of an imminent environmental and fiscal crisis is already changing habits and attitudes here. The coastal village of Nunatak, for example, which is now completed surrounded by water, is moving home by home to higher ground. The new village aims to rely on wind power, instead of the costly and greenhouse gas-emitting diesel for its energy.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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