What do we know about climate change?

It seems you can’t open any newspaper these days without seeing the words “climate change” in bold print. Climate change is environmental, social, political and most of all controversial. It is the looming threat on the horizon that may impact the human race in every possible way. Climate change has been highlighted in every form of media and has been displayed in thousands of venues all over the world.

With all of this attention and information available to people, the question has been posed: “What do people actually know about climate change?” Most of the data and models dealing with climate change come from researchers, who then pass that information to government officials and eventually that information is made public. In essence, the communities are being told how climate will impact them. But what do everyday Americans think of climate change and how it may impact them now and in the future?

From September to October 2008, the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program completed a study to better understand peoples’ perception of climate change as it applies to Alaskans and Alaska resources. Alaska Sea Grant has a long-standing mission of bridging the gap between research and communities and this study was an attempt to voice the opinions and perceptions from coastal Alaska communities rather than to Alaskan communities.

Climate change workshops were held in Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, Cordova, Kodiak and Unalaska.  Workshops entailed community lectures, community round-table discussions and high school lectures. To better understand people’s perceptions of climate change, round-table participants were asked to complete a survey about Alaska’s coastal resources and their perception of how changes in climate may impact those resources. Over the two-month period, approximately 500 people attended lectures and round-table discussions and 50 surveys were completed.

When asked to rank in order the five most important resources to Alaska, 90 percent of the 50 participants ranked fisheries resources as one of their top five choices, with land and wilderness ranked second and wildlife in third. Other resources mentioned were oil and gas, culture and people, tourism, water resources, transportation and alternative energy. When asked to rank order the five most important resources to their respective communities, 96 percent of 50 participants ranked fisheries resources as one of their top five choices, with wildlife ranked second and land and wilderness ranked third.

Participants were then asked which effects of climate change would most likely have an impact on Alaska. Of the 50 participants, more than half listed warming temperatures as the most important impact followed closely be ocean acidification, and loss of biodiversity. Other important effects on Alaska mentioned were the pole-ward retreat of species, severe storms and erosion, melting sea ice and sea level rise. When the same question was addressed to their respective communities, 60 percent listed ocean acidification as the most likely effect followed by warming temperatures and loss of biodiversity.

Finally, participants were asked when Alaskans statewide and Alaskans respective to their communities would be facing the impacts of a changing climate. Of the 50 participants, 80 percent said that statewide, Alaskans are feeling the impacts now and 60 percent said that respective communities are feeling the impacts now.

So the message from the people of Alaska to the researchers is clear, climate change is happening now in Alaska. The largest perceived threats to communities are warming temperatures, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity and these threats are or will most likely impact fisheries, land and wilderness and wildlife.

Climate change is a large and complex problem that will take decades if not more to fully understand. Though many people in Alaska coastal communities may not necessarily have advanced research degrees, they are ones seeing and feeling the impacts of these changes. Perhaps the tide has turned and researchers might be able to learn something from the people witnessing first-hand the effects of our changing climate.

Reid Brewer, The Dutch Harbor Fisherman, 24 December 2008. Article.

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