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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 10/ 6/2008

The Candidates on Climate Change Science

By Andrew Freedman

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."

Senator John McCain

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?"

Governor Sarah Palin

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.


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."

Senator Barack Obama

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 Joe Biden

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.

By Andrew Freedman  | October 6, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes  
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I feel it is very important that this sinks in with Americans.

Palin said during the debate that McCain wants her to take leadership on energy. She clearly does not believe that global warming is man made, thus she will not prioritize taking actions to prevent it. In fact, her only 'expertise' is in oil. Obama and Biden clearly want to prioritize Alternative energy.

I imagine our current financial crisis to be small potatos compared to the effect that climate change will have on the world, and like McCain's deregulation policies for the economy, Palin is likely only to take environmental issues seriously once the crisis is upon us.

Drill babay drill!

Posted by: jesse | October 6, 2008 11:14 AM | Report abuse


I think its important to point out that energy is a separate issue from environment/climate change. Closely related, yes, but separate. On energy, McCain and Palin are on the same page - pursue alternatives, but also pursue domestic sources of oil to "fill the gap." Palin has a lot of experience with energy, hence her role in a potential administration. I think McCain has been clear though about his environmental policies, including a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.

I don't think the fact the VP candidate and presidential candidate have differing views is cause for concern. It would be very hard to find a conservative Republican who DID buy into man-made global warming. I'm not sure WHY that's the case, but it is. The issue has become more political than scientific, and views have become entrenched as a result. Regardless, I think McCain's view is the one to focus on, since that is the one that will hold sway.

Posted by: Jim in Blacksburg | October 6, 2008 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Senator Biden claimed that the global warming which we experienced in the late 80's and the 1990's (and has now stopped) was all man's fault. How can that be? Seriously, how can that be?

Is he claiming that if not for the CO2 that man introduced into the climate the world would not have warmed??????? That is what he appears to be claiming. That is my interpretation of his claim that it is all our fault.

Even if we were to be kind and assume that he was referring to CO2 AND methane AND nitrous oxide AND flourocarbons, then how does he explain the recent cooling?

If CO2 (or CO2 and methane and nox and flourocarbons) were the PRIMARY (key word) cause of any warming, and since those gases have only INCREASED and not decreased, how can he (or anyone else) explain the recent cooling?

If they were the primary (as in >=51%) cause of the warming, and the other natural causes contributed less than 50%, then how could it be getting cooler?

Obviously, CO2 (and all of the other gases combined) play a bit role at best.

Just because a bunch of politicians believe something, it doesn't make it true. If forced to wager on it, I would wager that the truth is the opposite of whatever a politician claims it is.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 6, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I would urge anyone who is sincerely interested in the global warming debate to read a recent paper by Dr. Douglas and Dr. Christy. It has been accepted for publication in 'Energy and Environment'. The paper is titled "Limits on CO2 Climate Forcing from Recent Temperature Data of Earth" and can be found here.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 6, 2008 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Palin wants us to believe that climatological cycles are the cause of global warming. She believes that humans hunted dinosaurs and believes the bible's claim that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. The problem here is that the climatological cycles, which are based in large part of the fossil record, are longer than the 9000 year age of the earth.

I'd use the expression cognitive dissonance but I don't want to be accused of using 'fancy words'. How about, illogical, it don't add up, makes no sense. Palin can 'believe' anything she wants. A Vice President Palin would have to act on more than 'belief'.

Fortunately, she won't get the chance.

Posted by: thebob.bob | October 6, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Actor Jon Voight Was On Fox Last Night, He went nuts on Obama. Assuses him of all kinds of Crazy things. Watch his crazy rant at

Posted by: Anonymous | October 6, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Strictly interpreting what Sarah Palin says leads me to conclude that she is correct.

She maintains that humankind is not the ONLY source of global warming -- that is true since the natural background cycles also add to, and sometimes, subtract from, manmade causes.

In fact, even though the IPCC states that mankind is the "predominant" cause (and makes this SPECIFIC statement, with 90% certainty) -- even the IPCC does NOT state what actual PERCENT of the warming is manmade and what is not. It could be 70% or something else entirely.

Sarah Palin says it is not important what the actual causes are and that action needs to be taken. She says she knows this from the warming effects on Alaska.

On this point, she is also correct -- although maybe she does not elucidate her reasoning clearly enough.

This is sadly true, because even though Joe Biden says that mankind is 100% the cause of warming, which no one has actually ever said (the IPCC included) -- we are not likely to REDUCE CO2 emissions over the next 30 years. We would be lucky to just reduce the growth of such emissions.

This leaves only other mitigative steps to be taken -- such geo-engineering steps (only if accepted by the whole world) are the only ones left with which to effectively mitigate the (supposedly 100% effects according to Biden) of CO2.

So, Palin ends up being, strictly-speaking, correct in her interpretation.

Namely, that it does not matter what the cause is (putatively CO2, in a 100% attribution according to Biden and some others) -- there will NOT be any ACTUAL reductions in CO2 that, over the next 30 years, EFFECTIVELY, can be relied on as mitigations against global warming.

By the way, I personally think CO2 has only about a 5% forcing effect within the array of all warming causes -- the IPCC probably thinks this is about 98%. But my personal opinion on this last point is irrelevant.

Posted by: A.Viirlaid | October 6, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Bad news...neither candidate, Presidential or VP is going to cure global warming. I know Mr Freedman is not trying assert such statements, but in all my work this election with both sides of the ticket, I have to say there are some very simple people in this country who honestly think that Obama is going to wave some magic wand and cure issues. The number one issue besides jobs, is global warming. It's not until we start seriously dealing with things here in the US and then showing how awful OTHER countries are at GW, that things are going to get taken care of. Personally, I would just love for a candidate to not worry about offending somebody and just call out the China's, India's and Al Gores of the world who get a free pass time after time while I get middle fingers for driving an SUV.

GW has about as much of a reason being apart of this election as gay marriage and abortion. There should be a restraining order between the two. It should be up to the American people to take these matters into their own hands, vote on the issues and not leave them up to the courts or congressmen who "will examin" the issue.

Posted by: Mot | October 6, 2008 2:07 PM | Report abuse


"Just because a bunch of politicians believe something, it doesn't make it true"

So we are to disbelieve the entire scientific community as well right? Face it, restricting(lowering)emissions will call for changes across the board in manufacturing and automobiles. Nobody says it can be done overnight. Nobody said everyone is going to lose their jobs in these industries. But companies are going to have restructure the manufacturing process, help to develop new technologies and implement them. That's gonna cut into their profits, and thay don't wanna lose any profits at all. Regardless of whether it's destroying the planet or mot. So they run to the republicans, throw money at them, plead with them not to take away their profits. And now we have the "cyclic changes theory" Sounds like something rush limbaugh came up with. Republicans befriend people with big money and shelter them from harm, not even caring about their own children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. "Live for today" should be their motto. Along with "drill baby drill" until our own reserves run out in fifty years. But they'll be long dead by then, so who cares right?

Posted by: tom | October 6, 2008 2:44 PM | Report abuse


In a back and forth we had several months ago, you said you were a science writer, not a political reporter. Has that changed? Where was the science in your article here? Would not this article fit better in the Politics section of the WP?

How about something on sequestration technologies, ocean seeding, or something else along those lines? There have been several huge solar technology advances at MIT recently that are very interesting.

Posted by: RM | October 6, 2008 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Tom, you seem to be more interested in talking Democrat vs Republican politics than talking science. I am very sorry, but I will not take up the Dem vs Repub debate. I will not because I don't feel that it is relevant to the science. And that was the point I was trying to convey.

Politics serves as nothing more than a distraction from the science and a method of dividing people.

I am more interested in the science and the facts. If you wish to discuss those, I would be happy to oblige. Perhaps you could start by explaining how CO2 could be a primary driving agent in the global climate when the global temperature has gone down over the last several years despite CO2 levels continuing to increase.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 6, 2008 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Tom said, "So we are to disbelieve the entire scientific community as well right?"

It is a myth that the "entire scientific community" supports the dire predictions/assertions of the man made global warming crowd. There are literally thousands of scientists who have gone on the record as disagreeing with the catastrophic man made global warming theories. THOUSANDS.

Senator Inhofe maintains a list of names containing hundreds of scientists who disagree. Start here. Or here.

Do you have a list of names of the scientists that agree with the catastrophic theory of man made global warming? A list of names where the scientists have gone on the record in clear support/agreement with the catastrophic theory of man made global warming.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 6, 2008 4:02 PM | Report abuse

McCain can talk until he's blue about how strong the scientific consensus is, and agree with it, but if he does not LEAD on massive government support for commercialization and deployment of internationally applicable clean energy solutions (efficiency, wind, geothermal, solar PV, and solar baseload for starters), he might as well sit around telling sunspot stories.

Or he might as well be James Inhofe, which, as far as his voting record is concerned, he is:

Posted by: Modesty | October 6, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q, what on earth are you talking about with respect to recent temperatures going down? Who are you?

Your "recent cooling" link showed a cooling over the past FEW MONTHS.

Hardly a long-term trend, my friend.

Posted by: Ken | October 6, 2008 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Ken, it is ironic that you used the word "trend" in your comment. Did you happen to notice the dotted lines on the graph? Those are called trend lines.

And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the forecast is for more cooling until at least 2015.

--begin quote--
You may have heard earlier this month that global warming is now likely to take break for a decade or more. There will be no more warming until 2015, perhaps later.

Climate scientist Noel Keenlyside, leading a team from Germany's Leibniz Institute of Marine Science and the Max Planck Institute of Meteorology, for the first time entered verifiable data on ocean circulation cycles into one of the U. N.'s climate supercomputers, and the machine spit out a projection that there will be no more warming for the foreseeable future.
--end quote--

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | October 6, 2008 6:59 PM | Report abuse

RM: I cover climate science for this site, and this story is a science policy story that is well within that beat. Note that this story is different from one on climate policy (cap and trade, carbon taxes, renewable energy tax credits etc.), which would be just a political story.

Thanks for those topic suggestions, btw.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | October 6, 2008 7:12 PM | Report abuse

If you're actually interested in the science and want to read what Keenlyside et al's article said vs. what was reported in Mr. Q's link, then you can get find in Nature 453 p. 84-88.

The last sentence from the abstract summarized their findings: "Using this method, and by considering both internal natural climate variations and projected future anthropogenic forcing, we make the following forecast: over the next decade, the current Atlantic meridional overturning circulation will weaken to its long-term mean; moreover, North Atlantic SST and European and North American surface temperatures will cool slightly, whereas tropical Pacific SST will remain almost unchanged. Our results suggest that global surface temperature may not increase over the next decade, as natural climate variations in the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific temporarily offset the projected anthropogenic warming."

From: Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector

by N. S. Keenlyside, M. Latif, J. Jungclaus, L. Kornblueh & E. Roeckner

Posted by: John - Burke | October 6, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freeman clearly uses this medium as a source for his political views. He has done so since day one. What irritates me is this (his) mentality that "Global warming caused by humans" is fact... when in fact it is an unproven theory. Palin said she believed that it was PARTLY caused by human and partly natural. Even I believe that humans have played a small part. But you, Freedman in your condescending way speak as though it is fact and all other opinions are those of the ignorant and uninformed. In my opinion, it is you who is the ignorant one and uninformed. Spreading these untruths is a dis-service to those who believe everything they read. Frankly, it amazes me that anyone takes you seriously. This isn't even a weather article. Its a pure self-serving political statement. That is why I rarely come to this site anymore to get interesting and useful weather facts about our local area. At least Kevin's photos are really good. Wish I could say the same for your fairy tale articles.

Posted by: Steve | October 6, 2008 10:33 PM | Report abuse


Global warming denialists and inactivists regularly do "climate science" using methods from politics. Yet you're perfectly OK with that.

Steven Milloy recently gave a talk titled How to Stop Climate Change Legislation in the US. Is this not politics?

Tom Harris is calling for what he calls "information sharing" and "coordinated local activism". Are these methods of science, or methods of politics?

Why aren't any `skeptics' calling these people out for their blatant political (in)activism? Where's the call to get these people to shut up and stick to doing research?

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Posted by: frankbi | October 6, 2008 11:15 PM | Report abuse

this site is useless!
sort it out!!!!

Posted by: bob tinkle | October 7, 2008 5:20 AM | Report abuse

I don’t get all this whoosey whatsy about global warming. Us hockey moms and 6 packers just don’t trust those elitist scientists and their hi falutin sounding gibberish about stronger herrikanes and melting geology. Gosh darn it, I can see the North Poll from my house and whenever those polar beers raise their heads I become more of an expert on that supposibly warming.

Aw shucks, we’ll just offset that carbon and drill baby drill and, darn it, that’ll do it. And I bet ya that Osama guy will claim Johny boy MKCain is out to begin a dekade of global cooling to start a panic bying of heating oil futures.

Ya no what, darn-it, he’ll be right for once.

Posted by: TBull | October 7, 2008 9:05 AM | Report abuse

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