Adapting to a changing climate

Who said this?

All life on Earth shares one atmosphere and each nation, each state, bears a responsibility to all to protect it. Our government officials need to be well-informed as the debates continue on legislation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Al Gore? Ed Miliband? George Monbiot?

No, it was Sarah Palin, writing to Alaskan citizens in July 2008, shortly before she came to the international prominence that she still, despite everything, enjoys. She also said this:

Alaska’s climate is warming. 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. Many experts predict that Alaska, along with our northern latitude neighbors, will warm at a faster pace than any other areas, and the warming will continue for decades.

She was explaining why she had set up a sub-cabinet with special responsibility for climate change, the purpose of which was "to identify priorities needing immediate attention along with longer-term steps we can take as a state to best serve all Alaskans and to do our part in the global response to this global phenomenon."

These days, Palin is more likely to say things like this:

While we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.

In the same article (which appeared in the Washington Post and the Guardian) she highlighted the "Climategate" emails which, she wrote recently,

reveal that leading climate "experts" deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to "hide the decline" in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals. What's more, the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd.

It might be that Palin has genuinely changed her mind, her world-view rocked by the shocking information leaked/hacked from East Anglia. Or it might be political positioning. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, who unearthed the circular (pdf) from last summer, comments that

When she was in office, Palin treated the issue as serious, complex and worthy of urgent attention. Now that she's the iconic leader of a populist movement that reacts with anger at the slightest whiff of pointy-headed, "one world" intellectualism, she writes as if the idea of seeking ways to mitigate climate change is a crock.

It fits with a pattern I've identified before. The pre-election Palin was a small-town and fairly sensible conservative, her populist approach in keeping with her credentials as an ordinary "hockey mom" who, by dint of hard work and a belief in public service, found herself moving with extraordinary speed from a seat on Wasilla town council to the governorship of her state. Post-election she is an opinionated celebrity, a kind of shock-jock without a radio show. If there's a simplistic, populist bandwagon she'll climb aboard. She has even winked at the conspiracy theorists who doubt Obama's right to be president. Adopting climate change scepticism - whatever might be said about the subject scientifically - is, politically, a badge of dissent, part of her rejection of (and by) the elites of Washington and New York. In just the same way, David Cameron's embrace of green policies has been central to his attempt to position the Conservative party in the centre of British politics.

The transformation of Palin from a mainstream politician, however untypical her background and route into politics, to maverick outsider may have begun during the presidential election campaign as a strategy of appealing to the Republican grassroots dubious about John McCain. But it was the intense mockery that followed - much of it, as Michael Jeffries points out, based on snobbery - that typecast her forever as a naive right-winger. Originally, as her policy on climate change while governor demonstrates, she was a much more nuanced figure. She was never an evangelistic Green, of course. One of her proudest achievements as governor was to block the listing of the polar bear as an endgangered species. What emerges from her Alaskan policy, rather, is a hard-headed pragmatism, adopting strategies to deal with the effects of global warming and at the same time ensuring that the new low-carbon energy regime could be turned to Alaska's economic benefit.

Ironically, Robinson reports, the chairman of the Cabinet working group that Palin assembled to develop a climate change strategy, Larry Hartig, "is scheduled to deliver a presentation at Copenhagen. Posted in advance on the Internet, the presentation shows that Alaskans aren't just fretting about the abstract possibility of effects from warming. They're dealing with a real, live situation."

As governor, Sarah Palin had to deal with that situation. The situation she now has to deal with is rather different: it is to maintain her profile, possibly for a future return to electoral politics, mainly at the moment because that is now her career. So far, it seems to be working. A recent opinion poll showed that her personal approval rating was as high as Barack Obama's - but, unlike his, moving in an upward direction.

Climate change scepticism, undeniably, is a populist cause. It may now be becoming a popular one. And Sarah Palin is determined to be its poster-girl.


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