ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Charles Gibson seemed a little confused about Gov. Sarah Palin's answers on global warming when he interviewed her this week while strolling beside the trans-Alaska pipeline.
The ABC anchor has plenty of Alaska voters for company. Since entering the governor's race here two years ago, Palin has shimmied back and forth on the key question of whether warming trends are natural or a byproduct of human activity.
What Palin ended up telling Gibson was this: "I'm attributing some of man's activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now."
That sounds like a change from past statements, her interviewer said. She was sounding more like Sen. John McCain.
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"I think you are a cynic," Palin replied, "because show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect, or no effect, on climate change."
Critics didn't have far to reach: an interview in the Internet news source Newsmax.com, published the day she was announced as McCain's vice presidential pick, in which 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."
Someone who feels differently is Palin's running mate. McCain long ago accepted the argument of a majority of scientists that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, and has immersed himself in legislative efforts to curb those emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in 2007 that odds were better than 90 percent that humans were to blame for current warming.
But Palin comes from a state where skepticism over the causes of climate change is still a mainstream sentiment.
Earlier this year, the state legislature approved $2 million for a conference inviting climate change skeptics here to hash out the causes.
"It is important to remember that climate change is occurring, but then it has occurred continuously for millions of years," wrote the legislature's Republican leaders, House Speaker John Harris and Senate President Lyda Green. "And, so far, there are too many dissenting opinions to state matter-of-factly that it is being caused by humans."
The project was derided by some as a "conference to nowhere" and now appears unlikely to take place. Much of the money was later diverted to fund a lawsuit by the Palin administration against listing the polar bear as a threatened species.
State officials have expressed concern in the past that efforts to regulate emissions could have an unwarranted impact on oil development activity on Alaska's North Slope. The state joined others in an unsuccessful effort last year to get the Supreme Court to block use of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.
Alaska has seen increased coastal erosion, melting of permafrost, dying forests and shrinking sea ice, all widely conceded to be the result of warming temperatures.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has been a leader in obtaining federal funds to deal with impacts of climate change here. He has said a mix of natural and man-made causes are to blame. He bases his position not on the IPCC reports but on work by the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Palin has also said she is looking to the scientists in Fairbanks for advice on the issue.
Officials with the IARC in Fairbanks did not return calls Friday to discuss their position on human-vs.-natural causes of climate change.
Running for governor in 2006, Palin said she didn't have all the answers on global warming and cautioned against an "overreaction." A campaign spokesman said at the time that she wasn't totally convinced one way or the other. "Science will tell us, and she's proud that UAF will have a role in that," the spokesman said. "She thinks the jury's still out."
Last December, assessing her first year in office, Palin noted the warming in Alaska but said, "I'm not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity."
On the other hand, as governor, Palin formed a special sub-cabinet on climate change. Formed in April, 2007 – two months after the latest IPCC report said there was no longer reasonable doubt about the main cause of global warming — the group was charged not only with looking at ways to adapt to warming but at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources.
Two months ago, Palin released a short report on the sub-cabinet's work. She spoke mostly about adaptation efforts but also spoke of ways to reduce government's "carbon footprint." She noted that future export of Alaska's natural gas would help the rest of the country obtain an affordable low-carbon energy source.
The administration's efforts so far include drawing up an inventory of emission sources in Alaska and creating a task force to find ways to reduce those emissions, said state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig.
"Why would we be doing all this if we weren't thinking we had to do something about greenhouse gas emissions?" Hartig said Friday.
Hartig said Palin had been completely supportive of her sub-cabinet's work, even as she has shown a "healthy skepticism" in meetings on the subject. He said she relies on her department heads for information, rather than steeping herself in the scientific arguments.
"The kind of questions she asks that show skepticism are the kinds of questions a person on the street asks," Hartig said.