WASHINGTON — Scientists, conservationists and even the mayor of the eroding village of Shishmaref painted a grim picture of the effects of climate change in Alaska, including the loss of habitat for polar bears and the end of a way of life for native people.
"Going, going, gone," said Deborah Williams of Alaska Conservation Solutions, speaking to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "We must take action now; it is urgent. We want to be part of the solution, not just the poster child of the problem."
Williams and other Alaskans, including a professor of forestry from the University of Alaska, came to Washington for the meeting of the House committee, which no Republican committee members attended. The Democrats who were there had little positive to say about the Bush administration's efforts to slow or reverse global warming.
"Where is the urgency to deal with this crisis?" said the committee's chairman, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "Not in our government. This week, President Bush sat out the U.N. summit on climate change."
But this week in Washington also functioned as something of a mini-summit on climate change, as congressional committees considered a host of global warming-related questions.
Monday, a Senate committee heard testimony about the effect of global warming on forest fires. Another Senate committee heard Tuesday about the economic effects of efforts to reduce the country's carbon footprint. Later this week, the president is set to host a climate meeting with 16 so-called "major emitter" countries, including China and India.
On Tuesday, though, the House committee focused on Alaska. The meeting was a substitute for a tour Markey was supposed to lead to Alaska in August, which he canceled after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. On Tuesday, Alaskans came to him with a plea for help in addressing the effects of global warming.
The committee heard from a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who summarized its findings about the faster-than-forecast declines in arctic sea ice and projected declines in polar bear populations. It also heard from scientists who discussed the effects of global warming on Alaska's forests.
"The bottom line is, it is warmer, and it is warmer a whole lot more," said Glen Juday, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "The warming is very substantial, in temperature terms, and has reached, the last few years, the highest values in the record."
The higher temperatures mean that permafrost will melt, Juday said, simply because the sustained temperatures needed to keep it frozen no longer will exist. His most recent studies show that higher temperatures have led to more tundra fires; when tundra burns, it releases a tremendous amount of stored carbon dioxide. This year alone, 100,000 acres of tundra burned, Juday said.
"The tundra is starting to burn and that means, potentially, a very large amount of carbon could be released in the atmosphere," further concentrating greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming, he said.
Tuesday's meeting also focused on some of the more immediate concerns of global warming, such as the Alaskan villages that have seen their coastlines battered as the ice that used to protect them from fall storms has retreated.
"We have lived here for 4,000 years," Shishmaref Mayor Stanley Tocktoo said, as he showed the committee photos of the erosion that's washing away his village and its way of life. "We are unique and need to be valued as a national treasure. We are worth saving."
Tocktoo first visited Washington last spring, testifying before a Senate committee at the invitation of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Tocktoo's village, just below the Arctic Circle on the Bering Strait, has seen such severe erosion that there are efforts to move it.
Stevens visited Shishmaref to see the progress of a seawall that the Army Corps of Engineers is building, spokesman Aaron Saunders said.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who's about to release a book about the efforts of ordinary people in fighting global warming, said the information he'd heard in the past year had terrified him and that Tuesday's committee meeting amplified his concerns.
"This has been a doom and gloom session, and it's discouraging, the picture we've painted," Inslee said.
But he added as the meeting concluded, "I'm going to try to end on an upbeat note. Things are moving here in Congress. The ice is melting in the Arctic, but the political ice and resistance is melting as well."