By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
No one, including Gov. Sarah Palin, questions that Alaska's climate is changing more rapidly than any other state's. But her skepticism about the causes and what needs to be done to address the consequences stands in sharp contrast to the views of her running mate, Sen. John McCain, and place her to the right of the Bush administration and several other Republican governors.
Although Palin established a sub-cabinet to deal with climate change issues a year ago, she has focused on how to adapt to global warming rather than how to combat it, and she has publicly questioned scientists' near-consensus that human activity plays a role in the rising temperatures.
She fought the administration's listing of polar bears as threatened with extinction because of shrinking sea ice. Palin sued to overturn the decision on the grounds that it will "have a significant adverse impact on Alaska because additional regulation of the species and its habitat . . . will deter activities such as commercial fisheries, oil and gas exploration and development, transportation and tourism within and off-shore of Alaska."
In his campaigning, McCain has regularly said that humans are driving global warming and declared that his efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions demonstrate his ability to work with Democrats. But in selecting Palin and deciding to place her in charge of energy affairs should they win the White House, he has a running mate who has resisted this key tenet of his candidacy.
Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska marine conservation professor who pressed Palin's administration to hand over documents related to its position on the polar bear listing, said the governor has not enacted policies that would help reverse climate change even as it transforms the state's landscape.
"She has said some of the right things in the last two years, but she's done absolutely nothing," Steiner said.
But Larry Hartig, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, said Palin worked aggressively to address climate threats by lobbying the legislature to provide $13 million to help remote villages facing coastal erosion.
"Unlike the rest of the country, we are experiencing the threats of warming here, now," Hartig said, adding that while the Palin administration has focused largely on adapting to the shifting climate, "I wouldn't interpret that as a lack of interest in mitigation, by any means."
Different regions of the United States are responding in varying ways to climate change, with drought in the Southwest and changing blooming patterns in the Northeast, but Alaska is feeling the effects the most. The state has warmed by 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years -- far outpacing the global and national temperature rise. Glaciers on its southeast coast have receded one to five miles over the past few decades, and the warmer, drier temperatures sparked a beetle infestation that devastated spruce trees on the Kenai Peninsula.
Alaska has experienced "a double whammy," said John Walsh, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks climate change professor, because it has been affected by changing wind patterns as well as human-induced warming.
Palin does not minimize the consequences. When she established her climate sub-cabinet last September, she said in a news release that Alaskans "are already seeing the effects" of warming: "Coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice and record forest fires affect our communities and our infrastructure."
But when environmentalists urged the governor to include language attributing global warming to humans and suggested that the state set a target for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, Palin hedged. Instead, she issued an executive order saying the state needed to develop a strategy that would "guide its efforts in evaluating and addressing known or suspected causes of climate change. Alaska's climate change strategy must be built on sound science and the best available facts and must recognize Alaska's interest in economic growth and the development of its resources."
Kate Troll, executive director of Alaska Conservation Voters and a member of a sub-cabinet advisory group, said she did not understand why Palin resisted the language environmentalists wanted until Newsmax magazine published an interview late last month in which the governor said: "A changing climate will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made."
"Now I know why" the state doesn't have emissions reduction goals, Troll said. "It's very scary to have someone in the vice presidential seat who doesn't get the link to human activity, because if you don't get that, you don't get the connection to the rest of the story, of national security and global security."
Palin played down her skepticism last week in an interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, saying: "Show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect or no effect on climate change. I have not said that."
By contrast, when a General Motors employee asked McCain on July 18 whether "the science of man-made global warming has really been proven," the candidate said it had. "I've been all over, and I believe that climate change is real, and that's the preponderance of scientific evidence," said McCain, who also believes polar bears are endangered.
Hartig, the environmental commissioner, said his discussions with Palin "didn't get into the science, how much is man-caused." He sees that question as irrelevant, adding that the sub-cabinet is exploring how best to reduce greenhouse gases while looking at how to help Inuit communities that face the most immediate effects of global warming.
"We wouldn't be doing those things if we didn't think there's a point to it," he said, adding that the state has taken an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions.
Palin has not voiced an opinion on whether the federal government should cap carbon emissions, a cause McCain has championed for years. But she did resist the federal government's move to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.
Initially, Palin said her state's fish and wildlife department had conducted a review showing that the bears were not facing extinction. But Steiner, the professor, obtained an e-mail exchange showing that state officials concurred with federal scientists' predictions that all of Alaska's polar bears would disappear by mid-century if trends in greenhouse gas emissions continued.
Scott Schliebe, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who oversaw the scientific analysis for the polar bear listing, said Palin and her deputies "had some strong views that were different from ours, and we thoroughly reviewed them. We didn't find their views had merit from the mainstream consensus of scientific thinking, which was backed by data."
Walsh, at the University of Alaska, said Palin has taken "a practical perspective," and he praised her for "casting a wide net of information." But when asked whether her policies have reflected the scientific information he and other climate researchers have given her, Walsh responded, "I haven't seen it yet."