A visit to Alaska offers a chance to witness some of the last remnants of an unspoiled landscape that reminds us of our spiritual connection with this great planet: majestic mountains, icy blue waters full of salmon, sea otters and humpback whales; and vast open lands teeming with grazing caribou. Native villagers still live off the landscape on wildlife bounty the way their ancestors did for generations before them. I had the good fortune to see all of this on a recent trip to Alaska.
But I also saw signs of major changes in Alaska that illustrate what scientists have discovered all over the Arctic region. Global warming is happening, and the Arctic is on the front line. Consensus among 300 scientists, experts and indigenous elders is that global warming is affecting the Arctic "more rapidly and persistently than at any time since the beginning of civilization," according to Robert W. Corell, chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a four-year comprehensive scientific analysis of global warming in this vast region.
Near Fairbanks, I dug through tundra soils with scientists who are carefully documenting the thawing of permafrost. I learned that there are many consequences of the melt, including the loss of wetlands, beaches and riverbanks. By mid century, parts of the Arctic Ocean may be completely ice-free during summertime. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I observed the shrinkage of alpine glaciers and the receding of ice caps in the Brooks Range, and the poleward and altitudinal shifts of black spruce as the trees overtake tundra. I learned that along the state's northern coastline, several villages are being washed away by increasing erosion caused by longer and more unpredictable ice-free sea trends that were verified by Eskimo whalers who are being forced to change their hunting and fishing habits to fit a warmer world.
I listened to several Gwich'in elders who are deeply troubled by the later freezing and earlier break-up of ice, and to the higher than normal spring runoff that has swept thousands of migrating caribou calves to their death as they attempted to cross rivers that historically would be ice covered. The survival of the Gwich'in people and the caribou are inexorably linked together.
Gwich'in villagers also confirm several findings by scientists regarding declines of plant and animal populations, and earlier emergence of insects and arrival of egg-laying birds. These days, a new songbird even visits their village: the American robin, for which their native language does not have a name.
The far-reaching consequences of global warming will be the defining events of this century. Without job-creating investments in a clean energy future and safeguards to reduce greenhouse emissions, we will continue to emit more and more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse pollutants. The consequence, ecologists predict, is the loss of a million species of wildlife due to global warming in the decades to come. Yet the message concerning these dire, long-term consequences simply is not getting to the American public - nor are our political leaders dealing with the reality of the scientific warnings and mounting evidence. Global warming may be the greatest story never told.
Are we really willing to say goodbye to the polar bear, a species scientists believe could go extinct in the wild by the end of the century because their hunting grounds are melting away? Are we prepared to saddle our children and grandchildren with the cost of moving entire towns and cities inland because of sea level rise?
I believe the time has come to put away the political play books and focus our collective efforts on meaningful solutions to global warming. A good place to start is the climate change legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) that would limit global warming pollution while at the same time spur innovation and promote an emerging market for alternative energy sources.
Global warming eventually will touch every American, and we have an obligation as caretakers of future generations to rise to meet this challenge together.
Larry Schweiger is President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.