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Friday, October 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Climate change hits home

Seattle Times staff reporter

The good news about climate change for Northwest forests is that carbon dioxide is like a fertilizer for trees, increasing growth in some species by up to 50 percent.

But then again, there's plenty of bad news. Like the fact that bark beetles reproduce more quickly and devastate huge swaths of trees. Or that forest fires will be more severe as the ecosystem dries out.

Those were some of the specific, local concerns about global warming as outlined by University of Washington scientists Thursday at the Climate Change Conference in Seattle. A capacity crowd of 700 people attended the Qwest Field event hosted by King County.

The unmistakable political theme running through the conference was this: The federal government isn't doing much to address climate change, so cities, counties and states should be preparing to go it alone.

Of course, some participants came to the conference sporting flip-flops and bushy beards. But most were wearing more conventional office attire. Almost half of the attendees were from local governments. Others ranged from environmentalists to forest owners.

The event cost the county about $125,000, including $50,000 paid to the UW for special research.

"After the hurricanes [on the Gulf Coast], there's a general concern about preparedness," said Doug Howell, the county's climate-change project manager, explaining the high turnout. "I think it resonated. The timing is right."

The conference used the catchphrase "The future ain't what it used to be." Howell said part of the message is that it's too late to stop climate change, so the response must include ways for people to adapt.

Keynote speaker Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), praised California's ambitious plans to reduce harmful emissions and said other states can help "blaze a trail."

Without meaningful federal limits on harmful emissions, she said, voluntary attempts by companies are important. She noted that Northwest-based companies have not joined "Climate Leaders," a voluntary partnership between the EPA and businesses aimed at reducing emissions.

At a session on forests, scientists said atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide — a byproduct of fossil fuels thought to contribute to global warming — are spiking.

UW doctoral student Jeremy Littell said that over the long term, forest managers may want to consider switching from such traditional Northwest trees as Douglas fir to species more resistant to drought and fire, such as ponderosa pine.

Stanford University professor Stephen Schneider said that climate change also can cause some vegetation, birds and animals to move into new territory, leading to ecological chaos.

Schneider said it's important for scientists to communicate clearly that they agree on many aspects of climate change, and that it poses real threats.

The event, he also noted, was held in an appropriate venue for spreading the word to the general public. "It's a football stadium," he said. "It's the true temple of American culture."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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