When I first heard Gov. Sarah Palin say, in the vice-presidential debate, that she would not “attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate,” I wanted to believe it was a mere verbal gaffe. I assumed she meant that she didn’t attribute every change in the climate to the activities of men. She meant that we might also attribute global warming to “cyclical temperature changes.” I gave the Governor the benefit of the doubt.
But I may have been too generous. Repetition belies intent. Sarah Palin has repeated this backwards line multiple times. She told Katie Couric that she will not “solely blame all of man’s activities on changes in climate.” And it’s not that she doesn’t know better; a few weeks earlier, with Charlie Gibson, she got the causal relationship right, and expressed doubt about whether climate change is “wholly caused by man’s activities.” Why the change?
We are left with a couple of choices: Either we leap to the judgment that Gov. Palin thinks it necessary to refute the view that every human activity is caused by our changing climate, or we conclude that her causal mish-mash is a politically calculated formulation. The former conclusion would lead us to question Palin’s sanity: Nobody has ever expressed the belief that rising global temperatures cause people to do everything that they do. But if we must settle on the political interpretation of her words, we also have to figure out their political motivation.
My best guess is that her construction is designed to make her appear nuanced to the casual observer. By setting up and then ably destroying this straw-man, Palin comes off as reasonable, at least to people who don’t notice her switcheroo. She sets up an extreme position (the words “all” and “every” are important, suggesting that her fake opponents paint with too broad a brush) and knocks it down.
But there’s more to it than that. Sarah Palin can’t say outright, as she did in August, that she won’t “attribute [global warming] to being man-made.” John McCain’s energy policy, particularly his cap-and-trade proposal, is predicated on the assumption that people are causing global warming and that changing people’s behavior can help fix it. If Palin denied the premise, she couldn’t reach the conclusion. So instead of denying the premise outright, she suggests that “it doesn’t matter” what causes global warming, and that we can do things to alleviate it “regardless” of what started it.
This formulation sounds moderate and practical to the layperson; Palin appears to be cutting through the things that might divide us (the causes of global warming) and is getting at the solutions. Palin’s suggestion that other things, like nature, might be causing global warming sounds judicious to Americans who are not completely sold either way. (Gallup shows that 58% consider it man-made, while 38% don’t.)
But, as Jon Stewart indignantly pointed out, it matters what caused it! Palin is trying to have it every way: She’s trying to sound reasonable next to the imaginary lunatics who allege that every human activity is caused by global warming, she’s trying to sound moderate next to those who insist that it’s man-made, and she’s trying to sound pragmatic in insisting that “it doesn’t matter” what caused it. But her position, just like her phrasing, is completely incoherent. Either we caused it and can fix it, or we didn’t and we can’t. Palin’s response is not “measured,” as ABC News put it. It’s calculated.