The Candidates on Climate Change Science
Unlike the two most recent presidential elections, when there were stark differences between the candidates' views on climate science and policy, this year three of the four candidates for president and vice president agree with the scientific consensus on climate change.
The lone skeptic on human-caused warming of the four major party candidates is Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who happens to be on the ticket with one of the most tenacious advocates for climate science and policy measures in the U.S. Senate - John McCain of Arizona.
Keep reading for a full assessment of the candidates' take on climate change science, and whether it is natural or man-made. For local Washington, D.C. weather, see our full forecast through the week.
McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has long held the view that there is conclusive scientific evidence pointing to human activities as the primary (although not the only) cause of recent warming, and he has strongly resisted efforts by the Bush administration to interfere with federal climate science reports. For an example of his efforts, watch this video of McCain taking the NOAA administrator (Conrad Lautenbacher, who stepped down two weeks ago) to task over the agency's interpretation of climate science assessment requirements mandated by Congress.
In contrast to the top of the ticket, Palin has made a series of statements in recent weeks in which she has questioned the extent of the human role in climate change, and insinuated that there is more disagreement within the climate science community than actually exists.
Consider these disparate statements from the two members of the Republican ticket.
During a May visit to a wind energy manufacturing facility in Oregon, McCain said, "We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge."
And speaking to a "Clean Cities Congress and Expo" two years ago, McCain said, "While there are still a few skeptics of climate change, the evidence supporting the cause of rising global temperatures as human-induced is overwhelming. Almost any credible organization will tell you that the evidence is growing and becoming clearer every day."
Meanwhile, at the vice presidential debate last week Palin said natural variations may be responsible for climate change, but that the main cause of climate change is unimportant.
"I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate," Palin said. "There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet. 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?"
Palin made similar comments in an interview with CBS News' Katie Couric last week. And before she was on the ticket, when asked about her take on global warming by Newsmax, she said: "I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made. "
Palin's statements go against the conclusions of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which concluded last year that there is at least a 90 percent likelihood that human activities are the dominant cause of recent climate change. Other authoritative scientific organizations have concurred with the IPCC's overall findings.
Palin's view that the causes of climate change are irrelevant for future climate change policy was rebutted by Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who said during the debate, "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."
In Alaska, Palin's climate science activities during her relatively short time as governor have focused mainly on helping that state adapt to climate change that is already occurring, rather than on preventing future climate change by reducing emissions.
Palin established a climate change "sub-cabinet" to study climate science and policy, but in a report the governor released in June on that group's activities, there was no mention of human contributions to climate change. Rather, the document stated, "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."
The climate science split between McCain and Palin is especially interesting considering that McCain often cites the rapid climate change taking place in Alaska as a warning to entice colleagues to support greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
McCain has visited the Arctic and Antarctic to get a firsthand look at the changes that have been affecting those areas, and such trips have solidified his view that climate change is a manmade phenomenon. He often sprinkles his climate change speeches with anecdotes about what he saw.
"On a trip to Alaska, I heard about a national park visitor's center that was built to offer a picture-perfect view of a large glacier," McCain said earlier this year. "Problem is, the glacier is gone. A work of nature that took ages to form had melted away in a matter of decades."
Palin, who has more experience living with the changes McCain speaks about, hasn't publicly made the connection between the warming in her state and human activities, despite the scientific evidence making that link. For example, a major international assessment on Arctic climate change, released in 2005, concluded that greenhouse gas emissions are the primary contributor to warming trends in the Arctic, which has warmed on average at about twice the rate of lower latitudes.
OBAMA, BIDEN ON SAME PAGE
On the Democratic side, Senators Barack Obama and Biden have both taken the position that climate change is caused mainly by human activities, and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a key priority. Like McCain, Obama has also used the rapid climate change that is taking place in Alaska as an example of why urgent action is needed.
Responding to a list of questions from "Science Debate 2008", Obama stated, "There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively."
In a Senate floor speech in 2006, Obama cited the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, which is being battered and eroded from ocean waves due to the disappearance of protective offshore sea ice cover. "As the last few residents of Shishmaref pack up their homes and leave their tiny seaside village behind, I can't help but think that right now, history is testing our generation," Obama said.
In that same speech, Obama noted that there may be lingering debate over the precise size of the human contribution to climate change, but he did not dispute that emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil are currently thought to be the biggest culprit.
On the science policy side, Obama and Biden have proposed boosting scientific research and development funding in the renewable energy sector and basic sciences. They also have a plan to depoliticize federal science programs in the wake of the Bush administration's well-known political interference with climate science. In addition, their plan would restore the White House science adviser to a senior-level role.
Senator Biden claims to have been the first to introduce Senate legislation on climate change - in 1986. That legislation, according to the Obama campaign, called for a "national strategy to understand and respond to the emerging threat of global warming." To put that into perspective, it wasn't until the sweltering summer of 1988 that global warming became an issue on the public's radar screen.
As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has focused on the national security implications of climate change. Along with several Senate colleagues, he pushed for the U.S. intelligence community to analyze the potential for climate-related political disruptions worldwide.
"Throughout human history disruption on this scale almost always and everywhere meant war. In those nations already on the brink, governments will lack the capacity to cope. When that happens, we will either be drawn in early, to mitigate the worst of the climate effects, or we will be drawn in later, when conflict has destabilized those countries," Biden said at a hearing last year.
Biden has also been a key player in prodding the U.S. government to engage in international negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the U.S. did not ratify.
For other Washington Post coverage of this issue, see: Palin, McCain Disagree on Causes of Global Warming, Palin Continues to Question Human Role in Global Warming, and McCain Breaks with Bush on Climate Change.
| October 6, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes
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