By Jenny Neyman
Even after a full-day conference on the local effects of climate change, participants weren’t ready to let the topic drop.
Throughout the day, speakers at the Kenai Change conference Saturday, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Kenai Peninsula College, presented data and observation of the various ways the continuing warming, drying trend is impacting the Kenai Peninsula — increased risk of wildfires, raising stream temperatures, accelerated erosion from increased storm events, reduced winter snowpack and lower summer water volumes, to name just a few.
Accompanying the talks documenting changes to the local ecosystem were discussions of ways to adapt to those changes, in order to mitigate some of the negative impacts that are developing.
But just like warming climate isn’t an isolated issue, implementing strategies to adapt to resultant changes in the ecosystem won’t be effective if only done on an individual basis. Conference attendees wanted to see a climate change adaption plan implemented boroughwide, with participation and coordination from all local municipalities.
To that end, the closing session of the workshop, held at KPC’s Kenai River Campus, was a panel discussion with representatives from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and cities of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and Seward. Questions ranged from topics of public transportation to roundabouts, development in wetlands, the Chuitna Mine and others, but one question kept being asked, rephrased and re-asked — would the municipalities adopt a climate change adaptation plan, and what can people do to help make that happen?
The answers were candid as to the difficulties elected officials would face in taking that step, and the take-away message was as repeated as the question — it has to start from the ground up.
“One of the things that’s really, really difficult in the public policy arena is what I call the paradox of politics, and that is that you can’t lead and you can’t advocate for changes effectively unless you’re in office, and if you’re not careful about the way you go about it, you’re not going to be in office in order to try to provide the change or the leadership,” Navarre said. “… It speaks to the importance of forums like this and community discussions like this is because it really does need to come from the bottom up in order to encourage and support the efforts that people who are in office attempt to make or do make in order to try to effect some changes and to adapt and to provide for mitigation.”
Panelists detailed several challenges to enacting policies and procedures of the sort suggested at the workshop — such as limiting development on wetlands, incentivizing “green” energy projects, requiring government-purchased vehicles to be fuel efficient, or instituting a policy that all actions have a “climate change review” to gauge environment impact, similar to a financial review to estimate the costs of a project.
For one thing, elected officials have a duty to be financial stewards of their municipalities, and measures that make environmental sense might not always pencil out in dollars and sense.
“A lot of decisions that come from the municipal level, I’m sure the borough level, too, are economically driven. If there’s a cost savings or cost benefit it’s something that certainly perks up the ears of the policy makers who are going to make the decisions on that,” said Kenai Vice Mayor Brian Gabriel.
“Every time you have a renewable energy project, generally, it’s either cost prohibitive currently unless you project way out, or there’s other impacts that end up getting in the way of it. … You really run into the economic impacts of policy decisions that end up being an impediment,” Navarre said.
Another issue is fairness. The Homer City Council, for instance, got complaints from existing fuel providers when the city helped facilitate Enstar’s natural gas pipeline coming to town, said Mayor Beth Wythe.
“Incentives are really difficult because if you bring in something that is a competitor to something that exists, then the something that exists wants to know why you weren’t incentivizing them to do their business, as well,” Wythe said.
That’s also an issue with instituting policies to preserve or protect habitats, for instance if a city or the borough were to prohibit draining or developing wetlands.
“There is a very fine line between zoning and taking of property. And when people own property, very few people own property for the purposes of preserving it. … For many people they have purchased that property with the concept of development … or future value. Few people invest in real estate with the thought that it’s not going to sell for more than they bought it for. So when you zone their property as a type of property that cannot be developed you have now taken their investment from their property,” Wythe said.
Another challenge is the time that developing a climate change adaptation plan would require — from pulling together research on why it’s important to formulating what the plan would entail, fleshing out how implementation would work and gathering the substantial support that would be needed for the plan to be enacted.
“I think the bottom line is we have a lot of other things that we’re dealing with. (Most of us) are just sort of part-timers who are there trying to do a good job with the things we’re supposed to manage,” said Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson.
Navarre’s position as borough mayor is a paid, full-time job, but one that’s already taken up with his priority, a health care task force, as well as the new hurdle of marijuana regulations and the usual duties of running the borough. So the more work that supporters put into a proposal, the easier it is for an elected representative to advance it.
“If you’re looking to those of us in office to have the answers or to come up with the answers and the plan it doesn’t happen. What our job is, is really to help facilitate a lot of the things that come from the ground up,” Navarre said. “Put something together that could be implemented, and then figure out what the negatives are going to be, what the arguments are going to be, do some brainstorming about where you’re going to get the pushback from, identify if there are economic impacts and why it makes sense. Do lot of that homework for us, and go to the chambers and talk to them about why it makes sense or why we should be supporting the governmental body in putting these things in place.”
And about those arguments — considering what the opposition might be and addressing those concerns is an invaluable step in enacting any new policy. But especially for something controversial, like a climate change adaptation plan would likely be.
“Make sure that you’re pulling in your critics. Because I’m sure in this room of people that have a very environmentally conscientious perspective, you know lots of people that don’t agree with you. Everybody has to know at least one person. You want to make sure those people are at the table, in the conversation, because they are the people that build the validity for you. … If you can start with people that are your critics and you can bring them to the point that they’re now your defenders and your supporters when you step forward, you have just created a product that you can actually bring the large volume of people that are not supporters of the concept to the table with,” Wythe said.
All the panelists advised a similar action — for those wanting to see a climate change adaption plan enacted to draft one themselves and do the groundwork of education and building support, both among the public and elected representatives.
“It’s kind of the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If you make some noise and come and talk to us. The more developed it is, in my opinion, the more likely we are to get something done. It doesn’t mean we’re going to take a developed plan and implement it immediately, but at least it gives us more ideas and more thoughts the more complete it is, in terms of how we can approach it,” Anderson said.
“It takes a lot of public education before you can motivate people who are in political office. I guess I’d say I’m willing to help do it, and if a group of folks in this room can get together and come up with a blueprint that says, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to consider working to implement on a boroughwide basis with the other communities,’ then I’ll give it some consideration,” Navarre said.
The session ended with Branden Bornemann, one of the workshop moderators, with the Kenai Watershed Forum, indicating a signup sheet for anyone willing to do what the panelists were recommending.
“This does not end here. We will metaphorically roll that ball towards these folks at the table here and hopefully we can get them to pick it up,” he said.
Sammy Crawford, a workshop moderator with the League of Women Voters, closed with her own call to action.
“I’m hoping that we can have this grass roots that we can go from here and make big changes in our communities,” she said. “We can’t do it without our wonderful politicians, but they can’t do it without us. They have to have people’s support.”