Herbert on climate change: Science still has some convincing to do

Governors' conference » Soon to be Utah guv says threat isn't conclusive.
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There was Energy Secretary Steven Chu bearing the grim news: Climate change -- from shrinking ice caps and swelling sea levels to fire-prone forests and a drought-plagued West -- is more ominous than previously projected.

Then came Utah's governor-in-waiting, turning Monday's discussion here at the Western Governors' Association gathering from how states should combat global warming to whether a climate threat even exists.

"Help me understand the science if, in fact, the science is conclusive," Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert said. "And, if it's not [conclusive], what do we do to get us there as a population so we can actually solve the problem?"

Herbert, who did not hear Chu's remarks, is poised to take Utah's reins once Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is confirmed as ambassador to China. (The lieutenant governor's absence was "purely coincidental," said his chief of staff, Joe Demma, a case of "bad timing" that required Herbert to leave for another meeting.)

But when he returned, Herbert, who does not share Huntsman's convictions in battling climate change -- told conference-goers that the problem cannot be solved "unless the people of the world believe the science is conclusive."

Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who replaced Republican Huntsman on Sunday as chairman of the Western governors group, agreed that, for many, the reality of climate change remains unproven.

Some people "think it's a bunch of hooey," he said in an interview. "You just have to get in my pickup truck and ride around with me a little bit. The debate is not over."

But Chu was matter of fact. Climate change is real and happening faster than scientists previously warned.

"The news is getting scary," said the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. "But the most scary thing in my mind is the [scientific] observations. People can be entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

On Sunday, the Western governors adopted two resolutions on global warming. One forms a task force to address ways to cope with climate change. Another urges swift action to harmonize state, regional and federal approaches on the issue.

Some governors, including Huntsman, also back the Western Climate Initiative, a coalition of Utah, six other Western states and four Canadian provinces that has spent two years developing a regional system of cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for climate pollution.

But Herbert's comments point to the obstacles still facing policymakers as they tackle not only the many political, economic and environmental hurdles -- all of them international in scope -- but also the task of persuading any doubters that the effort must be undertaken.

"There are economic reasons and economic opportunities that can provide that bridge between the skeptical public and where we need to be," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa.

A similar view was shared by World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick, who noted he has been watching the evolving science on climate change for more than two decades.

Zoellick said the uncertainty among scientists largely is rooted not in whether climate change is real, but rather in how and when the impacts will play out.

He compared the current approach to taking out an insurance policy that will have additional benefits -- for energy security and conservation, for instance.

"Even if you are uncertain," he said, "you buy an insurance policy."