Eight years ago, George W. Bush campaigned on a promise that he would cap carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in a bid to combat global warming. His running mate, Dick Cheney, was not a fan. Soon after coming into office, they ditched the plan.
John McCain has shown far more commitment to confronting climate change than Bush has, but his teaming up with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who doubts that climate change is man-made, should raise worries that we will see a repeat performance if they are elected. McCain, who conspicuously avoided the words “climate change” and “global warming” when he accepted the Republican nomination, needs to reaffirm in no uncertain terms his commitment to vigorously combat climate change — and he needs to make his running mate do the same.
Palin knows that something is amiss with the climate. In the same interview in which she rejected the scientific consensus on global warming, she noted that “a changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state.” She is undoubtedly right. In travels around the state last month, we witnessed how Alaska is changing.
In Fairbanks, we met with top polar scientists and discussed the historically low ice coverage in the Arctic. In Barrow, where the Chukchi and Beaufort seas meet, we observed — or more precisely did not observe — this literal sea change, as the ice that had been present off the Arctic shore weeks earlier was long gone. The Arctic’s ice is melting much faster than experts predicted. The ice near the North Pole has lost as much as half its thickness in the past seven years alone, and the fabled Arctic passages have just opened together for the first time.
These physical effects are having wide-ranging implications. We spent a week on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar as it began a voyage from Kodiak Island through the Bering Strait, which separates the U.S. from Russia, to the U.S.-Canada border in the distant Arctic, a mission that no one would have contemplated even a few years ago. The Spar dropped us in Kivalina, where we visited with tribal leaders and Army engineers. The vanishing ice pack has exposed that small Inupiat community to storm surges that are washing their home away.
These signs are only the beginning — but they will become far worse if we allow global emissions to grow unchecked. And we will succeed in tackling the problem only if we do it with broad political support. That is why Palin should immediately and explicitly embrace McCain’s support for a mandatory cap-and-trade system.
McCain should learn from Palin, too. Alaska has begun a concerted effort to adapt to climate change — and the U.S. will need to match a comprehensive effort to cut emissions with a national adaptation strategy. Emphasizing this as they speak, even if it rankles the most hard-line supporters, would be in keeping with their self-styled images as mavericks and reformists.
Or McCain could let Palin slowly but undeniably undercut the growing GOP support, which he has led, for strong action to confront our greenhouse gas emissions. In a “drill, baby, drill” world, it would be the politically convenient choice. It would also be a shame.