Here at RealClimate we understandably have an intense interest in the positions of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates regarding global warming and carbon emissions. What the stance bodes for future action on climate change is consequential in itself, but beyond that the ability to use sound science in this case serves as a bellweather for the candidates’ whole approach to science. Whatever else you can say about the candidates, it has been encouraging that both John McCain and Barack Obama favor mandatory action to reduce US carbon emissions.
But, enter Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s pick for VP. Palin’s position on global warming has been stated quite clearly in this recent interview with the publication Newsmax , where she says “A changing environment 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.” How is this to be reconciled with McCain’s position? Do they just agree to differ? What does this bode for future actions if McCain were to win the election, especially in view of the fact that, in a Cheney-esque way, Palin is likely to be put in charge of energy policy? The recent vice-presidential debate sheds some light on the issue. A full transcript of the debate is here.
Palin seems to be attempting to defuse the whole issue by claiming the cause doesn’t matter. When the moderator asked her ” What is true and what is false about what we have heard, read, discussed, debated about the causes of climate change,” Palin responded as follows:
“PALIN: Yes. Well, as the nation’s only Arctic state and being the governor of that state, Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it’s real.
I’m not one to attribute every man — activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.”
I’m pretty sure that that last statement is a garbled attempt to reiterate what she said in the Newsmax interview, but you be the judge. Unlike the previous quote, this one at least has a nod in the direction of acknowledging (tentatively) the possibility of a human influence. What’s important is what comes next:
“But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don’t want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?”
Dare we say that it, in fact, very much makes a difference what is causing global warming? If CO2 really weren’t a major part of the cause, what in the world would be the point of John McCain’s (or anybody’s) stated policy of acting to reduce emissions? And even if you were of the school that says adaptation is better than mitigation, knowing the cause is an important part of knowing what kind of climate change you have to adapt to, how long it is likely to last, and how much worse it is likely to get in the future.
Biden’s answer, by comparison, was direct, straightforward, and simple:
“BIDEN: Well, I think it is manmade. I think it’s clearly manmade. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden — Governor Palin and Joe Biden.
If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That’s the cause. That’s why the polar icecap is melting.”
Well, maybe he left out the kind of caveats and qualifications you’d attach to the attribution of the recent loss of (North) polar sea ice if this were an AGU talk instead of a vice-presidential debate. Overall,though, the statement gets to the heart of the matter.
One can moreover doubt even Palin’s commitment to dealing with the consequences of climate change. Surely, that would include doing something to save the polar bears,yet the State of Alaska (against the advice of its own wildlife biologists) is suing the Interior department over its decision to list the polar bear as “threatened” — and this despite the fact that the Bush administration put so many qualifications on the listing as to make it essentially toothless. What’s even more telling is that the brief submitted to Interior drew heavily on a list of climate skeptics (including the Marshall Institute’s Willie Soon) that could easily have been culled from the infamous Inhofe 400. (see this article). Palin’s role in bringing this case has not been peripheral; she has been very much at the center of the effort, and has consistently questioned the causal link between CO2 and global warming in making the case. As early as Dec. 2006, she wrote to Secretary Kempthorne: “”When a species’ habitat (in this case, sea ice) is declining due to climate change, but there are no discrete human activities that can be regulated or modified to effect change, what do you do?” Further information about Palin’s long fight against the listing, and her view of the scientific issues involved, can be found here.
We will take this occasion to note also that Biden used the debate to reaffirm Obama’s long standing position in favor of “clean coal.” Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the extent to which the candidates understand what should really be meant by this term. From the point of view of global warming, the only “clean” coal would be coal burned with 100% carbon capture and sequestration — certainly worthy of research and pilot implementation, but not by any means a technology that can be counted on at present to solve the problem. (And of course, the term “clean” is even then relative, since what mountain top removal mining does to the West Virginia hills and rivers is anything but “clean”).
So there you are. We report, you decide.