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History & Background

Juneau’s climate report: History and background

In its February 16, 1959, edition, the Alaska Daily Empire carried a wire service story declaring that the earth was in the midst of a long warming trend, leading to—among other things— the retreating of glaciers in Alaska. “One theory is that the change is man-made, that a blanket of carbon dioxide given off by the burning of coal and oil retards the radiation of heat by the earth.”1

By the turn of the century, scientific knowledge of the interactive processes affecting climate change, the role of humankind in those processes, and the dire consequences of those processes for the planet, ranging from sea level rise, extinction events, and insect infestations to massive droughts, wildfires, flooding, and erosion, had grown exponentially.

That scientific understanding found increasing public acceptance expressed through environmental movements across the globe. Unfortunately, efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to implement mitigation and adaptation measures encountered hostile responses from an array of industries that either denied the existence of change and its human causes or decried the financial burdens any regulatory measures would impose. These latter attitudes dictated federal government policy through much of the first decade of the 21st century.

It was in part this federal policy of denial that prompted the convening of a scientific panel to examine climate change in Juneau. If federal and state government leadership was unwilling or unable to confront what was even then clearly a matter of planetary survival, then local governments should leap into the breach. A panel of scientists drawn from Juneau’s wealth of academia and agencies with expertise could develop a baseline of information that the city could use in its planning and—as importantly— to inform local citizens about the changes that were occurring or likely to occur. To be sure, Juneau’s residents were largely receptive to this information. They had experienced observable changes: isostatic rebound on the wetlands, receding glaciers of the Juneau Icefield, and warmer and wetter winters. Beyond this, the Tlingit community was keenly aware of changes in their traditional subsistence efforts, and long before others, started warning about the changes.

In the 15 years that have elapsed since Juneau’s scientific panel first convened to examine its impacts on our community, the city and various citizen initiatives have together built on its foundations. This update comes at a propitious time, the outset of a new federal administration that acknowledges that climate change is the pre-eminent challenge of our generation.