Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin, U.S. vice presidential candidate, may be an influential actor in Congressional efforts to pass climate change legislation.
Photo Courtesy State of Alaska.

When comparing the U.S. presidential candidates’ green credentials, both contenders support greater action to address climate change through a cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. While Republican candidate John McCain’s reduction targets are more modest than the promises of Democrat Barack Obama, either candidate should offer a significant shift from the largely stalled policies of the current administration.

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Among the vice presidential candidates, however, the choices offer significant contrasts in ideology and policy. Democrat Joe Biden supports action that reflects the stance taken by Senator Obama. Meanwhile, Republican nominee Sarah Palin has stated that she does not believe global warming to be human-caused — a stark difference from her running mate Senator McCain.

As the country’s second-in-command and president of the Senate, the next U.S. vice president could become a crucial player in attempts to pass a sweeping climate change bill through the Congress and reach a diplomatic solution on a new international climate change agreement. During her two years as Alaska’s governor, Palin has moved forward efforts to assess the impact of climate change on her state, yet reports indicate that she has resisted, and at times subverted, scientific evidence that would support increased environmental protection in response to climate change.

Palin’s stance on climate change is summarized in an August interview with conservative magazine Newsmax. In response to a question about her “take on global warming,” Palin said, “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.” Neither Palin’s communications director nor the McCain campaign responded to requests for clarity on her views of whether recent climate change is human-caused — a trend that has been affirmed by international scientific consensus.

Despite her reported questioning of the human hand behind climate change, Palin did establish a Climate Change Subcabinet last year to review potential adaptation and mitigation strategies for Alaska. “Some scientists tell us to expect more changes in the future. We must begin to prepare for those changes now,” Palin said when establishing the subcabinet.

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While Alaska has passed no legislation to reduce its emissions, Palin has authorized $13 million to relocate or improve erosion control for six indigenous communities in areas most vulnerable to coastal erosion caused by melting permafrost and rising sea levels. Erosion and flooding affect about 86 percent of 213 Alaska Native villages, according to a 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office report [PDF].

Michael Black, co-chair of the subcabinet and deputy commissioner for Alaska’s commerce department, said Palin’s personal views have not influenced the activities of the subcabinet. “I never heard her address that issue in front of any of these gatherings,” he said. “Whether [climate change] is related to carbon emissions or a natural phenomenon is less relevant than what its impacts are.”

Larry Hartig serves as Alaska’s environmental conservation commissioner and oversees the subcabinet. He previously worked as a lawyer securing environmental permits for industry groups, including his former employer Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. He was unavailable for comment.

Palin’s most controversial environmental action as governor has been her opposition to listing the polar bear on the U.S. Endangered Species list. Officially designating the polar bear as “threatened” would create significant legal hurdles for oil and gas development in Arctic Alaska and could restrict Native subsistence hunting. Alaska’s budget is supported largely by revenues from energy development in the state.

Last month, the Palin administration sued the U.S. Department of Interior to overturn its May preliminary ruling to list the species as threatened. In response to nine U.S. Geological Survey studies [PDF] predicting that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear species — and all of Alaska’s — will disappear by mid-century due to ice loss, Palin described the studies as “highly speculative and questionable” and insisted that U.S. polar bear populations are stable. In a January New York Times op-ed, she wrote, “My decision is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials of scientific information from a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s lead biologist for marine mammals, Robert Small, and two other state biologists also reviewed the USGS studies. Their analysis differed significantly from the Palin administration’s. “Overall, we believe that the methods and analytical approaches used to examine the currently available information supports the primary conclusions and inferences stated in these nine reports,” Small wrote in an e-mail.

The e-mail was uncovered by University of Alaska marine conservation professor Rick Steiner through a federal Freedom of Information request. Steiner says the message reveals that Palin opposed the polar bear listing even before she reviewed the science. “She came into office and a few days later she opposed federal listing of the polar bears. Obviously they want to protect oil and gas revenues in the state budget,” Steiner said. “I think that bodes pretty poorly about how science will be reviewed if the McCain/Palin ticket were to prevail.”

Since Palin entered the presidential campaign last month, she has contributed to Republican calls for additional drilling in the Arctic Ocean and in the Alaska-based Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. McCain has long opposed drilling in ANWR, and his selection of Palin has led some commentators to suggest he may change his mind.

But on issues from climate change to drilling, campaign energy advisor James Woolsey insists McCain will not budge. “On a number of issues, such as climate change, John McCain has had well developed views over the years … I see no reason why that would be departed from,” said Woolsey, the former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Other climate change-related measures by the Palin administration have included joining the Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program, as an observer, and opposing a multi-state lawsuit against the Bush administration that sought to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

  Reprinted with Worldwatch Institute’s permission.

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