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Homer needs to increase climate change adaptation efforts, study says

Renee Gross, KBBI News

Homer needs to do more to adapt to a changing climate. That’s according to a study released earlier this year. Researchers say Homer is on track when it comes to mitigating climate change, but needs to be more prepared to deal with its effects. The city is thinking about updating its response to the issue.

Homer resident Alan Parks is standing on a vacant lot near downtown where the city is set to build its new police station. While the ground has yet to be broken, Parks notes that this location is right above the tsunami zone.

“You have to err on the side on cation,” he said. “You don't just don't go right up against it. You go away from it.”

But making sure the police station is farther above the maximum tsunami inundation zone is just one of a very long list of concerns Parks has.

He helped craft the city’s climate action plan back in 2007. He said the city has followed the plan by bringing natural gas to the area, transitioning nearly all of its buildings to LED lighting and other initiatives. The city said those moves have reduced its carbon footprint, and while Parks applauds those efforts, he said the city has focused too little on adapting to climate change.

That focus doesn’t surprise Jeff Birchall, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.

“I mean when you're trying to reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions, there's usually energy efficiencies and things attached to that,” he said. “So there's usually economic savings associated with that.”

Birchall and his colleague studied Homer’s response to climate change in 2016, and published a study on that work earlier this year in which he said the city could do more.  

Birchall said larger storm surges and increased erosion due to climate change is already impacting Homer. He said the city needs to implement policies that will prevent development in areas, such as the Homer Spit, that are prone to the effects of climate change, especially during natural disasters.

“There's some condos that are built essentially right to the water's edge,” he said.  “And I mean, that's a threat to those condos but it's also a risk to first responders that have to go out there and help people that are living in those condos.”

But he knows that crafting those policies is easier said than done.

“A lot of people have a hard time getting their head around what might actually happen in the future,” he said. “So they don't want to necessarily spend that money to create a seawall for instance because they think that they might not need it because the actual impacts are either not going to be that bad or they're going to be too rare.”

He said funding projects is also an issue for small communities like Homer, but he said local governments often have the ability to be the first line of defense against climate change.

In Homer’s case, he said the issue has been a low priority for the Homer City Council in recent years. Council member Donna Aderhold agrees.

“Homer felt pretty smug for a while: ‘hey, we have a climate action plan,’” she said. “So reading the report I was kind of kind of going, ‘yeah, he's right. He's really right.’ We have a lot of work to do.”  

She said it’s been hard for the council to step back from more immediate issues and revisit the plan. But this past October, Aderhold decided to do just that.

“There was some money set aside in the 2019 budget to kind of look back over some of the plans that have been done in the past and do they need to be updated?” she said. “So that's part of the impetus too is to be able to dust off this plan and do some planning toward making changes.”

She’s excited to potentially update the city’s climate action plan on paper, but acknowledges it will be an uphill battle when it comes to funding the adaption projects it may call for.

And figuring out how to protect private infrastructure along bluffs and other problem areas in the city will also be an issue.  

“With all the bluff properties, it’s almost all private land and so there's going to be increased demand for protection of that bluff,” she said. “How do we do that? I don’t know the city’s responsibility versus the personal responsibility.”

But as the city decides whether to modify its plan, those like Parks are worried the city and the council lack the political will to fully address climate change.

“It’s kind of like we’re starting over but we're not completely starting over but there's just a lack of real leadership going on with the city right now in terms of climate change,” he said.

The Homer City Council will officially decide whether it wants the city to revisit the climate action plan in the near future. It remains unclear, what, if any, changes could be made.

Renee joined KBBI in 2017 as a general assignment reporter and host. Her work has appeared on such shows as Weekend Edition Saturday, The World, Marketplace and Studio 360. Renee previously interned as a reporter for KPCC in Los Angeles and as a producer for Stateside at Michigan Radio. Her work has earned her numerous press club awards. She holds an M.S. in journalism from the University of Southern California and a B.A. in women's studies from the University of Michigan.