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Eugene Robinson on Sarah Palin's flip-flop on climate change

Sarah Palin at a book-signing event Thursday in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Sarah Palin at a book-signing event Thursday in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. (Jerome A. Pollos/associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sarah Palin is such a cold-eyed skeptic about the Copenhagen summit on climate change that it's no surprise she would call on President Obama not to attend. After all, Obama might join other leaders in acknowledging that warming is a "global challenge." He might entertain "opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." He might even explore ways to "participate in carbon-trading markets."

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Oh, wait. Those quotes aren't from some smug Euro-socialist manifesto. They're from an administrative order Palin signed in September 2007, as governor of Alaska, establishing a "sub-Cabinet" of top state officials to develop a strategy for dealing with climate change.

Back then, Palin was the governor of a state where "coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans," as she wrote. Faced with that reality, she sensibly formed the high-level working group to chart a course of action.

"Climate change is not just an environmental issue," wrote Palin. "It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans."

Palin mentioned having created the climate change unit in an op-ed she wrote last week for The Post. What she didn't acknowledge was the contrast between what she says about climate change now and what she said -- and did -- about it as governor of our most at-risk state. When she was in office, Palin treated the issue as serious, complex and worthy of urgent attention. Now that she's the iconic leader of a populist movement that reacts with anger at the slightest whiff of pointy-headed, "one world" intellectualism, she writes as if the idea of seeking ways to mitigate climate change is a crock.

"Alaska's climate is warming," Palin wrote to Alaskans in a July 2008 newsletter. "While there have been warming and cooling trends before, climatologists tell us that the current rate of warming is unprecedented within the time of human civilization. Many experts predict that Alaska, along with our northern latitude neighbors, will warm at a faster pace than any other areas, and the warming will continue for decades."

In her administrative order, Palin instructed the sub-Cabinet group to develop recommendations on "the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources, including the expanded use of alternative fuels, energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, land use management, and transportation planning." She also instructed the group to look into "carbon-trading markets."

But in her op-ed last week, Palin -- while acknowledging "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and the possibility that human activity might be contributing to warming -- states flatly that "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs." What she once called "carbon-trading markets" she now denounces as "the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal."

Palin cites the "Climate-gate" e-mail scandal as reason enough for the president to skip the Copenhagen summit. I've written about those e-mails and why, despite what skeptics say, they do not begin to prove that climate science is fraudulent, politicized or fundamentally flawed. The most compelling evidence for climate change is found in the Arctic, and Palin has seen it firsthand.

In her 2008 newsletter, Palin mentioned one coastal village, Newtok, that would have to be relocated because of flooding due to the effects of warmer temperatures. Since then, relocation plans have been developed for two more towns, Shishmaref and Kivalina. The Army Corps of Engineers has identified more than 160 villages that are threatened, according to a recent newsletter from Palin's successor, Gov. Sean Parnell. At least 31 are judged to be in "imminent" peril.

In case anyone was wondering, Palin's home town of Wasilla sits at an elevation of 333 feet -- high and dry.

The chairman of the Cabinet working group that Palin assembled to develop a climate change strategy, Larry Hartig, is scheduled to deliver a presentation at Copenhagen. Posted in advance on the Internet, the presentation shows that Alaskans aren't just fretting about the abstract possibility of effects from warming. They're dealing with a real, live situation.

I predict we'll see more artful dodges of this kind from Palin. She made any number of pragmatic, reasonable, smart decisions as governor -- and now, it seems, will be obliged to renounce them all. Her tea-party legions have one answer -- a shouted "No!" -- for every question.

Palin knows better, but she has to fiddle her followers' chosen tune -- not while Rome burns, but while Nome melts.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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