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Science Insider: An Interview with Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Interview

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Originally published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Having warmed an average of 2°C since 1948, oil-rich Alaska best embodies the dual challenges of coping with climate change while weaning the United States off fossil fuels. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, has been more accepting of the concept of humanmade climate change than other politicians in Alaska, notably former governor Sarah Palin. Having shown a willingness to engage on the issue of emissions controls as a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski is seen as a possible "yes" vote in the effort to gain 60 votes.

In an interview with Eli Kintisch of ScienceInsider, Senator Murkowski called moves by India and China to set emissions-intensity targets "dramatic" but said the climate issue could get "bogged down" in the run-up to the 2010 election. She expressed hope that the climate change e-mail scandal would be "investigated" and reiterated her belief that the Environmental Protection Agency should not regulate greenhouse gas emissions, even if the Senate fails to act.

Q: How does the issue of climate change affect Alaskans? Some are living near the shore and you're actually having to move villagers, but some are not.

L.M.: Climate change is not just an issue of structures that are threatened. We are seeing change in the state of Alaska. We are not sure what's causing it, how much might be manmade, how much of it may be weather issues. It means that you now have roads that are so heaved that we need to construct new roads. These are issues that we as a state need to grapple with and that Alaskan families are grappling with. So it's real for us; it's not a theoretical exercise.

Q: The last decade may have been the warmest on record, but there's actually been a slight cooling in recent years. Does that make you question whether global warming is a serious phenomenon?

L.M.: It does certainly cause questions. I happened to graduate from high school in 1975, at a time when we were talking about a real cooling in the state of Alaska-we were experiencing some very, very cold winters during that period. Now, 35 years later, we are at another level of questioning. And so it does cause one to wonder: Is this a temporary thing we're seeing, or is this a more permanent condition? I don't think we really know. I am one of those, however, who believes that man's impact on the Earth does make a difference, and if we are causing emissions into the air that are not beneficial to us, isn't it wise and responsible to do what we can to reduce those emissions, and do it in a manner that works with our technology, helps advance our technology and does it in a way that doesn't harm our economy at the same time?

Q: You feel strongly that the Environmental Protection Agency should not be in the business of regulating carbon dioxide (CO2). But the Supreme Court 2 years ago ruled that CO2is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Everyone expects that as part of the climate-change legislation that a legislative solution would supersede a regulatory regime. But why foreclose EPA's ability to control CO2 in the meantime?

L.M.: The EPA, because of their task, because of their mission, [their regulation] is a pretty blunt tool. They are not tasked, as we here in Congress are, with making sure that at the same time we are reducing our emissions, that we are doing so in a manner that doesn't harm the economy. Their task is to reduce emissions, period. When I talk to my colleagues, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, I think we recognize that climate policy is best developed through the legislative process rather than through EPA regulations.

Q: Do you think that President Barack Obama is doing the right thing by going to Copenhagen before the Senate votes and laying out what is essentially a target for the United States to hit pursuant to congressional action?

L.M.: Well, I don't know what the president will say when he does go to Copenhagen. But I think the simple fact is that he is going to send a message to the rest of the world that he, his Administration, this country is committed to acting on climate change. So just his presence alone I think sends a strong message.

Q: A good message?

L.M.: Yes, I think it is a good message, that we are all in this together. For the United States, China, India, all the European nations, this is a global problem which requires global solutions, and we're part of that. I think the rest of the world recognizes that our legislative process has not proceeded to allow for recommendations to come out of the Congress right now on climate-change initiatives. But I think the president can go to Copenhagen and say, "Look, there are things that we are doing in this country to really work to meaningfully reduce our emissions." And he can cite the progress that has been made by the energy acts of 2005 and 2007 and the CAFE standards that have been put in place. It doesn't have to be on the beautiful legislative package tied up in a bow to say that we are serious about reducing emissions.

Look at the energy bill that we have moved to the energy committee on a bipartisan basis. That also furthers those steppingstones. The fact that we have not moved through the full Congress climate-change legislation does not mean that we have not been taking some very overt steps to reduce our emissions.

Q: Do you think the recent moves by China and India to set up what are essentially intensity targets are enough to show that these developing countries are serious?

L.M.: I think it shows a level of progress. Wind back a couple years ago to the debate we were having that "until China and India step up there's not much we here in the United States can be doing," and the response coming back from countries like China and India was: "Hey, you guys have had decades to be contributing to emissions." The change in tenor of the conversations I think is really, really quite dramatic.

Q: Governor Palin, when she was leading Alaska, actually set up some of the most aggressive efforts to study the problem. She said the other day in regards to the ClimateGate scandal involving the stolen e-mails that policy should be based on "sound science and not snake oil science."

L.M.: I do believe the research, the data that has gone on over decades; I think there is good, substantive documentation out there relating to climate change. But you know the whole issue of ClimateGate, I don't think that that in and of itself is going to overturn a consensus on climate change. I acknowledge that there's folks out there who do not believe in it, but I think the majority of people in this country do believe that we are seeing a change in our climate.

I know that our science isn't always perfect. We want our science to be as accurate as possible. I guess what concerns me with what we've learned in just a couple weeks is that if you had critical data that was somehow altered or was perhaps developed in an inappropriate manner-that worries me-those concerns merit our attention. So we are going to investigate what happened, why it's happening, and how it might impact the integrity of the data that's being used to develop the climate policy.

Q: There was a hope that the Senate would have time to deal with this issue before Copenhagen. Do you think the prospects for a real and intelligent climate bill have gone up or down the closer we get to the 2010 election?

L.M.: The dynamics of the election of course make things a little less clear. The closer you get to the election around here, the less policy is going on and the more politics. I think we've got a very short window. I think that you're looking at months, not a matter of weeks, that it will take us to draft any measure like climate legislation.

In order to make this real, it has to have bipartisan support from the outset. That's going to take some time. I think it's a very legitimate question as to whether this is achievable before things just get bogged down in the politics of an election year. I don't have a firm reading. Three months ago, I would have said we'd have had health care behind us by now and we would be working on climate change. But it's the first week of December, we've got health care stretching out till the end of the year, we've got regulatory reform next, so it seems the push and the emphasis from the Senate leader has been we'll pick this up in the spring. I think if you pick this up in the spring you're running out of steam, you're running out of calendar.


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