Alaskans invited to tell Congress what climate change means for them

Two children fish along the banks of Baird Inlet on July 20, 2020 in Mertarvik, Alaska. Residents of Newtok have been slowly relocating to Mertarvik as coastal erosion makes Newtok unsafe. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Across Southeast Alaska, heavier rains, changing snowfall, warming waters and ocean acidification are making profound changes to the environment.

In the Alaska chapter of the upcoming National Climate Assessment, a team of scientists, educators, and community leaders from across the state are asking what those changes mean for people. Until Jan. 27, they’re inviting Alaskans to help answer that question by submitting feedback on a draft of the assessment.

Alyssa Quintyne, a community organizer with the Alaska Center and one of the co-authors of the Alaska chapter, said it’s a way to draw attention to the everyday impacts of climate change.

“It’s an opportunity for us regular-degular people to essentially tell the story of what is happening in our own state, to other states and to Congress. So it’s a pretty big deal,” she said.

The National Climate Assessment is a congressionally mandated research report organized by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. It doesn’t mandate any specific actions, but Quintyne says it will help guide people working on climate solutions.

“Lawmakers who are looking at this assessment and thinking about, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know that was happening in my seat. What are actions that I could possibly take?’ Researchers who say, ‘Oh, hey, there’s a gap in something that we are not studying.’ So we can come up with some real solutions, and services,” she said.

Henry Huntington, a researcher with the Ocean Conservancy and the report’s lead author, said this version of the assessment focuses on humans more than ever before.

“Our charge, our assignment, has been altered a bit, which is to focus more on the society side. And what does this mean for people? What does this mean for people around Alaska, rather than, you know, getting into the details of the biophysical system,” he said.

The draft will go through a peer-review process, where researchers will help to refine and add to the climate assessment, but Huntington says he hopes that a more diverse group of Alaskans will submit their feedback this time around.

“What the public comment can do that the academic review can’t do is to tell us, are we making sense? Are we speaking to a wider audience?” he said. “We’d like this to be a report that has some relevance and speaks to people who it affects through livelihoods, through their recreation, through their interests.”

Huntington says the draft chapter moves beyond the natural environment to include discussions of COVID-19, housing discrimination, healthcare, crisis response and even internet access.

He says it’s important to highlight these new topics because climate change doesn’t happen in isolation. He hopes that the assessment will show how the changing environment could make existing social vulnerability and inequality worse.

“It’s that idea that climate change is happening within the broader social context that’s already there. And it’s going to add more stress to what we’re already experiencing,” he said.

Quintyne hopes that the comments submitted this month will help make the climate assessment the most useful resource it can be.

“We’re doing it for education, we’re doing it for awareness, but we’re also doing it for empowerment,” she said. “So people can make the best informed decisions moving forward, whether they be someone like me, whether they be the president, whether they be a fisher out on the Yukon.”

Alaskans who wish to review the draft submit comments can do so online. Comments are due by Jan. 27 at 8 p.m.

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