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Longtime environmental activist receives award

Julian Powers sits in his kitchen at his South Hill home in 2012.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Julian Powers sits in his kitchen at his South Hill home in 2012. (Jesse Tinsley)

Long before most Americans knew about global warming, Julian Powers was sounding the alarm.   In lectures on college campuses, at Earth Day fairs and through letters to the editor, the retired engineer sought to educate Spokane residents about the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases and why they should be concerned about warmer winters, scantier snowpacks and melting polar ice.

Friends called him “Mr. Global Warming.” He attacked inaction by politicians and used science to draw people into discussions.

“He would talk to anyone who would walk by,” said his wife, Jane Cunningham. “He sent information to legislators, to politicians and other environmentalists – anyone he could think of who would read it.”

Said Grant Pfeiffer, the Washington Department of Ecology’s eastern regional director: “He had a vision so far ahead of cultural consciousness.”

For his persistent advocacy work, Powers, 85, will receive the Department of Ecology’s top award in a ceremony tonight at the Saranac Building. The Environmental Excellence Award recognizes his work on climate change education and related efforts on aquifer protection, air quality and bike transportation.

After a stroke two years ago, Powers had to give up bike riding. But he’s still a persuasive speaker who calls for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

“My biggest single concern is for future generations,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re at an advanced stage of environmental degradation. Our grandchildren will inherit an Earth that isn’t nearly as hospitable to Homo sapiens.”

Powers first became aware of global warming in the 1970s, when he read “Hothouse Earth” by Howard A. Wilcox, an environmental scientist who was one of Powers’ supervisors in the U.S. Navy, where Powers worked as a civilian engineer.

Wilcox didn’t have access to the detailed climate research that exists today. But he made amazingly accurate projections based on anticipated population growth, rates of industrialization and increased use of fossil fuels, Powers said.

The book made a lasting impression on Powers. After he retired at age 54, he traveled worldwide, which deepened his commitment to environmental protection.

In 1990, Powers met his wife at a potluck at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane. He and Cunningham seek to live their beliefs. Powers was a bike commuter during his working years. The couple started a recycling program at their church. They compost, conserve water and put less than 4,000 miles on their Toyota Prius each year through trip reduction.

The couple also championed environmental causes in Spokane, advocating for clean air and water and promoting political candidates who supported their beliefs.

When BNSF Railway Co. wanted to build a train refueling depot in Hauser, Idaho, the couple joined Friends of the Aquifer to raise awareness about the threat to the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for more than 500,000 local residents.

“Julian helped in bringing this issue of aquifer vulnerability to the community,” said Dr. John Osborn, a Sierra Club representative and longtime environmental activist in Spokane. “He recognized that the state boundary is artificial and that BNSF’s decision to locate their fuel depot in Idaho didn’t change the physical reality that drinking water in Washington state was threatened.”

Shortly after the depot opened, leaks were discovered and the depot closed while repairs were made.

“The other side of Julian’s visionary work has been warning the community about the perils of a warming climate,” Osborn said. “It’s worthy to recognize those that had the vision early on to sound the warnings.”

But Powers said he remains disappointed by society’s seeming indifference to global warming, despite the scientific data supporting it.

“I don’t see a big change in the public attitude,” he said. “Those who benefit by inaction are the ones making the arguments against global warming.”

His letters to the editor frequently appear in The Spokesman-Review. They express urgency over the consequences of climate change, which scientists say will increase the frequency of severe storms and heat waves, and result in more-intense forest fires, potential water shortages and the expected loss of many wildlife species.

“He’d like to live long enough to see people believe (in climate change),” Cunningham said.

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