Senator's new views on climate surprise foes

In a turnabout, Alaska's Ted Stevens now pushes to cut greenhouse gases.
Published Feb. 24, 2007|Updated Feb. 24, 2007

Sen. Ted Stevens loves to argue. When he has a big debate on the Senate floor, he dresses for battle by wearing an Incredible Hulk necktie.

For years, the Alaska Republican has argued with environmentalists. They fought him when he tried to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and they rolled their eyes when he raised doubts that global warming was caused by humans.

So they were shocked last month when the oil-state senator introduced a bill that would require cars to be more fuel efficient, a move he said would reduce greenhouse gases. It was a dramatic turnaround on the order of Richard Nixon visiting China.

"He now recognizes global warming is real and we need to address it," said Robert Corell, a scientist from the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment who recently met with the senator.

Stevens' about-face marks an important turning point in the national debate on global warming. With Democrats now in control of Congress and the public increasingly convinced about the dangers of rising temperatures, there is growing momentum for new laws to regulate greenhouse gases and require more fuel-efficient cars. Even skeptics like Stevens are joining the chorus.

"This change in Sen. Stevens' view reflects a significant shift in conservative thinking and also in corporate thinking," said Deborah Williams, president of Alaska Conservation Solutions, an environmental advocacy group. A growing number of corporations and conservative political leaders are calling for government action, she said.

Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, said there has been "an awakening" about global warming the last year and a half. "It's like we've crossed a threshold that, 'My God, this is happening.' "

Alaska heats up

Alaska, a state known for its polar bears and glaciers, is melting. It is the front line for global warming, a place where the dramatic effects can be seen every day.

The state's permafrost is shrinking, exposing deposits of methane that, once in the atmosphere, will speed more warming. The rise in sea level from melting glaciers has eroded the coastline and threatened villages. The erosion has been so severe that a fuel storage tank for the village of Kivalina nearly fell into the ocean.

Those descriptions come not from the people Stevens describes as "extreme environmentalists," but from Stevens himself.

He insists humans aren't the main factor - he puts more blame on sunspots and methane, particularly gas from flatulent cows - but he's seen enough damage to his home state to be worried.

"Global climate change is a very serious problem for us, becoming more so every day," he said at a recent Senate hearing, adding that he was "concerned about the human impacts on our climate."

His comments were cheered by scientists and environmentalists because he was considered one of the last holdouts.

"I guess we finally got through to him," said Maryellen Oman, a program assistant in the Sierra Club's Alaska field office. "I think he's finally seen enough evidence."

Legislative brawler

To understand Stevens' importance to Alaska, consider this:

When he flies home, he lands at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

After he was named Alaskan of the Century - for the 20th century - President Bush speculated that he might also earn the honor for the 21st.

Stevens is 83 but looks 15 years younger. He is a small man but compensates with the volume of his voice and by occasionally pounding his desk.

He grew up in Indiana and California and was a pilot during World War II. He got his law degree at Harvard University and moved to Alaska, where he was named U.S. attorney.

A senator since 1968, his legislative skills are legendary. As a member (and former chairman) of the Appropriations Committee, he is renowned for bringing home billions of dollars in federal money. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks lawmakers' pet projects, cites a couple of extreme examples: He got $8.8-million to research how humans could be put into hibernation (to help their medical treatment) and set aside more than $400,000 for a program to make baby food from salmon.

He relishes a good fight. When an Oklahoma senator proposed canceling two Alaska bridge projects - including one dubbed the "bridge to nowhere" - and using the savings for a Louisiana bridge damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Stevens threw a fit. He said that if the Senate passed the amendment, "I will be taken out of here on a stretcher."

He prevailed.

Despite the senator's reputation for theatrics, Stevens is adept at arm-twisting and passing his bills. In 2000, after he stuffed an appropriations bill with millions of dollars for Alaska and renewed protections for the beluga whale, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, came away sounding like a convert.

Young declared, "The beluga whale is a very unique animal."

A warming trend

Environmentalists have often tangled with Stevens, but they give him high marks for passing laws to protect the oceans.

"In marine conservation, he's arguably been the best in the nation," said Williams.

Still, they are unhappy with his stubbornness on global warming and his relentless effort to drill for oil in the wildlife refuge.

"He's always viewed us in the conservation community as being the enemy," said Oman. "He never wanted to talk with us. We could never get in to see him."

But as his state has warmed, so has Stevens.

Last month, he introduced the fuel economy bill, which would raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economic standard, often called CAFE, to 40 miles per gallon from its current level of 27.5 by 2017.

Two weeks ago, he invited Corell and another scientist to his Capitol Hill office to discuss the latest research on global warming. Corell came away convinced that Stevens understands the severity of rising temperatures and is serious about taking action to reduce the human impact.

"He has done his homework," Corell said. "I don't think he's shooting from the hip anymore."

Wiggle room

Asked about his remarkable switch by the St. Petersburg Times, Stevens hedged. He said Mother Nature is largely to blame for the rising temperatures, but he grudgingly conceded that humans are a factor.

"We've got global climate change, and it's coming about partly naturally and part of it may be, I believe, caused by the accumulation of the activities of man," Stevens said.

Yet he quickly fell back into the rhetoric of a skeptic, grousing about "quickie field investigators who are making claims and just throwing numbers out there." He insisted that it should not be called "global warming."

"It's global climate change! We're not sure it's warming! The ocean warmed. We haven't warmed," he said.

Why is he hedging?

Corell said Stevens doesn't want to look like a flip-flopper, but Corell believes that, deep-down, Stevens understands the human impact on global temperatures.

Others speculate that Stevens realizes it's inevitable that Congress will take action to raise fuel standards or limit greenhouse gases and - always the wily lawmaker - he wants to be part of the action.

"This is the first good feeling we've had about him in a long time," said Oman of the Sierra Club. "We are happy to have him with us."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at or (202) 463-0575.