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Don’t forget ‘human dimension’ of climate change

While President Obama challenged other world leaders at the United Nations to “move forward together” on climate change, efforts to achieve domestic environmental legislation hit a snag.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Sept. 23 introduced an amendment to a spending bill that includes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. The amendment would have prevented EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from “non-mobile sources,” such as factories, power plants and oil refineries, for at least one year. That time period, explained Sen. Murkowski, would allow Congress to craft legislation that balanced economic and environmental priorities.

It was a puzzling argument, considering the senator herself has spoken for years about the consequences of climate change in her home state.

It was a puzzling argument, considering the senator herself has spoken for years about the consequences of climate change in her home state. At the Arctic Forum in 2006, Sen. Murkowski relayed first-hand observations and dire warnings. “The snow pack is coming later and melting earlier,” she reported. “Salmon are showing up in subsistence nets in greater numbers across the arctic. Different types of vegetation now grow where they never grew before. The migratory patterns of animals have changed. Warmer, drier air, has allowed the voracious spruce bark beetle to migrate north, moving through our forests in the south-central part of the state. At last count, over three million acres of forest land has been devastated by the beetle, providing dry fuel for outbreaks of enormous wild fires.”

There seemed to be no question then about her sense of urgency for addressing climate change. Politics, however, seemed to have clouded her conviction. Despite wide consensus that the new legislation would create jobs and other economic benefits, Sen. Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she wanted to prevent an “economic train wreck.”

That sentiment echoed the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by President George W. Bush as unrealistic and threatening to U.S. jobs. After years spent questioning the science of climate change, not to mention the near-collapse of the nation’s economy due to bad policy, the fact that any politician would go down the same road today is astonishing.

Joining 32 environmental groups in protest against Sen. Murkowski’s proposal were Alaska Native leaders, whose homes and livelihoods have suffered the ill effects of climate change for years while the political world debated its existence. “We are probably going to have the first refugees of America – climate change refugees and they are going to be Alaska Native people,” said Larry Merculieff, an Aleut environmental advocate. Thankfully, the Senate determined that although it would be debated, the Murkowski amendment would not come to a vote.

Native peoples have long predicted, through the prophecies of ancestors and present-day first-hand observations, that in time, the destruction of the natural world would have drastic consequences for all human beings. For generations now, indigenous witnesses to this devastation have been sounding an alarm that some are still denying.

In considering the sort of leadership required to adequately address climate change, the legislators might consider the Alaska senator’s own words from her Arctic Forum keynote: “While differences of opinion on the. … issues remain, one area that I believe we cannot lose focus on is the human dimension. Our policies of today, and our policies of tomorrow, have a direct impact on those who live in the Arctic region.”

As well, we’d add, as those who live anywhere on the planet.