Only four of the dozen candidates running for Spokane City Council say human activity contributes significantly to global warming. The rest – including two incumbents – question what has become the consensus among climate scientists, or say they don’t know enough about the topic to give an opinion.
Global warming has been a hot topic in city government since then-Mayor Dennis Hession signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement in 2007, aiming the city toward reducing carbon emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Since then, Mayor Mary Verner has pushed the city to lower carbon output not only to prevent climate change, but also to lower the city’s fuel and other costs.
This spring, when the City Council considered recommendations on the topic made by a mayor’s task force, the council changed wording to underscore that it was accepting the report, not adopting it. Council members Nancy McLaughlin and Bob Apple voted not to accept the report.
Professors who have studied climate change or have taught sessions on the topic at the University of Idaho, Washington State University, the University of Washington and Eastern Washington University said in recent interviews that there’s a clear consensus among scientists that carbon emissions from human activity are contributing to a warming planet.
“I don’t know of a colleague here who would argue that humans have nothing to do with this,” said University of Washington marine studies and public affairs professor Edward Miles, who formed UW’s Climate Impact Group in 1995.
Many researchers point to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2007 said that “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely” due to human activity. It said the probability that the rise comes from natural causes is less than 5 percent.
“There’s no one who I’ve run into or who I know that studies climate change in any sort of way who doesn’t agree with that study,” said Jeff Hicke, an assistant geology professor at the University of Idaho.
Hicke said he’s surprised at the continued level of suspicion around the topic, “especially in leadership-type positions and especially in the Pacific Northwest” where there’s “concern about decreasing snowpack and water resources.”
Jonathan Isacoff, a Gonzaga University political science professor who studies environmental politics, said the consensus among scientists is global.
“Of course, there are micro-debates about when, where and what precisely will happen as a result of this fact,” he said in an e-mail interview. “But the fact itself has not been debated among the scientific community for at least a decade. Only politicians, talk radio people and some industrial lobbyists – and only in America – continue to debate the question.”
But Gonzaga University biology professor Hugh Lefcort, who examines the topic in his human ecology class, warns against using the term “consensus.” Many models related to climate change haven’t held up as time has gone on, he said.
In the 1990s, he said, there did appear to be temperature increases that couldn’t be easily explained with just natural forces. But that trend shifted this decade, he said.
“We should be straight about what we know and what we don’t know,” Lefcort said. “I’m worried about scientists going out on a limb here.”
Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, said that while 2008 wasn’t the hottest year ever, it still was the seventh-warmest on record.
“To say temperatures have declined since 2005, it’s true,” said Mote, who was the state climatologist at the University of Washington until last month. “But it’s completely consistent of a system with natural variation with a profound and large upward trend.”
McLaughlin was the most vocal opponent of the mayor’s climate task force report and cited United Nations involvement in the topic as one of her concerns.
She recently was invited by Lefcort to sit in one of his classes.
“I’m totally convinced that there are two sides of the story,” she said. But “that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be good and wise stewards of our environment.”
McLaughlin has said her biggest concern with the mayor’s report was that it stressed environmental sustainability over “fiscal sustainability” at a time of declining city revenues.
Two of McLaughlin’s five challengers, John Waite and Barbara Lampert, have said they believe human activity is a significant cause of climate change.
“I think science shows that,” Waite said. “I think any educated person who lives in the real world can see that.”
Incumbent Mike Allen, who is competing against five other candidates to keep his seat representing south Spokane, has shifted his position since he was chosen to fill a vacant seat at the end of 2007.
Asked soon after being selected for the job if he believed human activity is a factor in climate change, Allen said: “I would say absolutely. I think the empirical evidence is in.”
In a June interview, however, Allen said, “My position is that obviously the Earth is warmer now than it has been in previous times. Is that a direct result of man or the sun’s own cycle? I don’t know.”
He added that just because he’s uncertain of humankind’s impact doesn’t mean action shouldn’t be taken, especially if programs lower costs and lower carbon output.
Of Allen’s five challengers, only Jon Snyder said he believes there’s enough evidence to point to humans as a significant contributor.
“A lot of people get hung up on the scientific evidence,” Snyder said. “What gets lost in the shuffle is there’s a lot of common-sense remedies for this that actually make really good economic development sense.”
Former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who is competing for Allen’s seat, said he doesn’t know if humans are affecting the climate, but either way, he criticizes Verner for spending time and resources on a topic he says “is not a city issue.”
Northeast council seat candidate Amber Waldref said human activity is a significant contributor to warming. Her opponent, Mike Fagan, disagrees.
Judd Case, dean of EWU’s College of Science, Health and Engineering, said studies he’s seen indicate that warming is on a trend that can’t be traced to natural factors alone.
“Looking at past data and how rapidly things have been going up, it just doesn’t seem to match patterns that have other known causes,” Case said.
Case, an evolutionary biologist who has done research in Antarctica, offers this anecdote: In his most recent trips to the most southern continent he was issued rain gear. “In the past there has been no question that what’s coming down will be frozen.”