Governor Admits Climate Is Warming
Otter avoids discussing causes at UI symposium
By James Hagengruber
The Spokesman Review
October 2, 2007

MOSCOW – Scientists and energy experts stood on a podium at the University of Idaho on Monday and proclaimed that the debate over climate change is dead. Humans are making the planet warmer, they told the audience at the university’s inaugural sustainability symposium.

Gov. Butch Otter also took a turn at the microphone. Otter is not known as a climate change bulldog. Earlier this year, he continued to question the link between humans and global warming, and he was noticeably absent at a July meeting of Western governors aimed at addressing the issue. But on Monday, the governor said the debate was moot.

“No matter what theory you accept or what evidence you recognize, the public reality is that our climate is getting warmer,” Otter said. “We ignore reality at our own peril. … We must think of adapting to a changing climate in ways the public and marketplace can accept.”

Addressing climate change is simply a matter of wise energy policy, he said. In May, Otter signed an executive order that called for an inventory of statewide greenhouse gas emissions. The order also directed state agencies to develop plans to reduce emissions.

“In this way, we can lead by example,” he said, adding later, “There are no easy answers. We need the political will and the foresight to make them sooner rather than later.”

Asked what his office had done, Otter pointed to the energy efficient building materials being used “when possible” during renovations of state offices. He also said state building inspection employees have been encouraged to carpool to job sites. In the past, these employees would often drive alone in pickup trucks, Otter said. “They now go in one car.”

Otter’s remarks drew a mixed reaction from some of the 200 people – many of them academics and students – in attendance. Maxine Dakins, interim director of the university’s environmental science program, compared Otter’s cautious approach with that of President Bush.

“It wasn’t very long ago he never would use the term climate change,” Dakins said of Bush.

This is in stark contrast with the academic world, where talk of climate change and sustainability has permeated nearly every discipline, from architecture and education to business and finance, Dakins said.

“Everybody seems to be talking about it. And they should be – we’ve got some real challenges ahead,” she said.

Karen Humes, associate professor of geography, began teaching a new class this semester on sustainable energy. Students in the class have analyzed different state approaches to climate change. Humes called Otter’s plan to consider climate change “a great first step,” but it was too vague.

“It doesn’t have anything that’s very binding,” she said. “We still seem to be in this mode of setting nonenforceable goals.”

The tepid response of some scientists and academics to Otter’s remarks might have been primed by the opening speaker at the symposium, Michael MacCracken, chief scientist with the Climate Institute, a nongovernment, nonpartisan think tank. MacCracken, who previously led climate change research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, urged quick, decisive action.

Even if dramatic changes are made now, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are expected to double or triple by the end of this century, MacCracken said. This will lead to warming of between 3 degrees and 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“You have to very quickly start coming down,” MacCracken said of carbon dioxide emissions. “We’re not even doing some of the simple things, like changing the light bulbs.”

MacCracken acknowledged that not all politicians or members of the public are convinced that humans are warming the planet or of the need for swift action. But he pointed to the ever-shrinking summer ice in the Arctic as an example of the problem’s existence. Scientists did not expect the ice cap to shrink so quickly, he said. “Uncertainty works both ways.”