A climate change in US attitudes

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Two of the leading contenders in the next United States presidential election have delivered a wake-up call to the US over global warming – saying the evidence of climate change has become too stark to ignore and that human activity is a major cause of the problem.

On a high-profile bipartisan fact-finding tour of Alaska and Canada’s Yukon territory, Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic senator for New York, were confronted by melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers and heard first-hand from Inuit how rising sea levels were irrevocably altering their lives.

“The question is how much damage will be done before we start taking concrete action.

“Go up to places like we just came from. It’s a little scary,” McCain said in Anchorage.

Said Clinton: “I don’t think there’s any doubt left for anybody who actually looks at the science. There are still some holdouts, but they’re fighting a losing battle. The science is overwhelming.”

Their comments challenge President George W. Bush’s reluctance to legislate to reduce the level of America’s carbon emissions.

Although both senators have talked of the need to tackle global warming, this week’s clarion call was perhaps the clearest and most urgent.

It also raises the prospect that climate change and other environmental issues could be a factor in the 2008 presidential contest if Clinton and McCain contest the race. Both are widely expected to do so.

Clinton and McCain, who represents Arizona, are among the leading – and certainly the most popular – likely contenders.

It was not by chance that they chose Alaska as the stage from which to force global warming on to the American political agenda.

In many ways this separated US state is the frontline in the global warming debate. Environmentalists say the signs of climate change are more obvious there than perhaps anywhere else in the US.

Dan Lashof, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defence Council, a respected Washington-based group, said: “People in Alaska are starting to freak out. The retreat of the sea ice allows the oceans to pound the coast more and villages there are suffering from the effects of that erosion.

“Permafrost is melting, roads are buckling, forests have been infested with beetles because of a rise in temperatures.

“I think residents there feel it’s visible more and more – more than any other place in the country.”

Campaigners say the position adopted by McCain and Clinton stands in stark contrast to that adopted by Bush, whose Administration has repeatedly questioned the evidence of global warming and the contribution of human activity to any shift.

Bush, who in 2001 refused to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on global warming just weeks after he took office, has repeatedly been accused of doing nothing to enforce tighter controls on emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”.

Meanwhile, the US National Academy of Sciences – and the scientific academies of the other G8 nations as well as Brazil, China and India – issued a statement this summer saying there was strong evidence that significant global warming was under way and that “it is likely that most of the warming in recent decades

can be attributed to human activities”.

It called on world leaders to recognise “that delayed action will increase the risk of adverse environmental effects and will likely incur a greater cost”.

Lashof said: “[The comments] are not new for McCain and Clinton but for them to use a week of the August recess to go up there and see the implications first-hand is important and significant.”

Clinton, who must first win her re-election bid for the US Senate next year if she is to contest the 2008 White House race, said she had spoken to a number of scientists as well as native Alaskans during the trip.