Candidates and Campaigns Coverage Flirting (at Most) with Climate Change (Pt.2 of 3)

When it comes to covering the climate issue in the campaign for president, politicians and the nation’s news and editorial pages just can’t commit.

The environment, and that includes global warming, is an issue that politicians like to date but don’t want to marry.

That’s how Cliff Zukin, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, describes the kind of attention the 21st century’s greatest environmental challenge has received this election season. And the nation’s reporters, editorial writers, op-ed columnists, TV talk show hosts, and pundits haven’t pushed very hard to keep the relationship going.

For the time being, at least, editorial discussions on the climate issue appear to have spiked, as did news reports, with the release of the latest IPCC reports early last year, Nobel Prize recognition of the international body and Al Gore, in October, and the Bali negotiations in December.

But since January 1, coverage of the campaign for President has focused mostly on the sputtering economy. With January coming to an end, the politics of race and the Kennedy’s endorsement of Democratic candidate Barack Obama is consuming coverage of the Democrats, and an intensifying fight between John McCain and Mitt Romney is dominating reporting on the Republican campaign.

So global warming is hardly front and center in the minds of the average voter – or most journalists.

“The environment just doesn’t rise to an issue where politicians feel people are demanding things and people really want action … and I don’t think the news media are going to put this on the agenda either,” Zukin said in a recent telephone interview.

“Their main story line is the candidates’ strategic fortunes, and what the candidates are talking about and how they’re beating each other up.”

The candidates and the news media that cover them aren’t exactly holding back against an electorate screaming for more climate coverage.

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted nationwide between January 20-22, only 6 percent of respondents said “the environment and global warming” should be the federal government’s top priority.

Not surprisingly, “job creation and economic growth” topped the list – followed by “the war in Iraq,” “health care” and “terrorism.”

A Gallup poll in November had asked Americans to list the top ten issues that were most important to them – and environmental issues ranked 10th.

In its analysis, Gallup wrote:

“On the prominent global warming issue, most Americans take it seriously as a problem. At the same time, only about 4 in 10 Americans believe that immediate, drastic action is needed to deal with global warming, and just 28 percent say there will be ‘extreme’ impact of global warming in 50 years if efforts to address the problem are not increased.”

That, in a nutshell, may explain why the climate change issue has not received sustained attention by reporters and editorial writers covering the presidential election, or from the candidates themselves.

Gallup polls taken close to Earth Day since 1989 have consistently shown that people concerned about environmental issues are most worried about pollution in rivers, the quality of drinking water, toxic waste in soil, smog and other environmental insults that directly affect their health, said Loren Cass, a professor of climate and environmental policy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

“Toward the bottom of the list you’ve got global warming,” Cass said.

Because the globe’s warming climate is driving long-term changes and many of them are incremental, the story is difficult and often tedious for the news media to track, said Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a coordinating lead author for the latest series of IPCC reports.

“An issue like this, which doesn’t have a sudden development … fades from memory,” Somerville said. “The media are just not set up to provide continuing coverage of an item like this that doesn’t have sharp, sudden developments.”

There have been a few highlights.

In an editorial on January 23, the Sacramento Bee said the candidates should “answer a simple yes or no question: Will they allow California to implement its 2002 law limiting emissions of greenhouse gases from cars and trucks sold in this state? … All the top contenders should be held accountable for their environmental positions, or their refusal to take seriously issues of concern in California.”

On January 1, an editorial in The New York Times called global warming “the overriding environmental issue of these times.” The piece pressed candidates for more detailed discussions of the costs of reducing global CO2 emissions and urged them to acknowledge the sacrifice that Americans will have to bear.

“Addressing these questions will require more courage of the candidates than simply offering up broad visions. The voters deserve an honest accounting and the candidates should be prepared to give it.”

On November 28, USA Today appealed for that evening’s YouTube debate among Republican contenders to include discussion of the climate issue. (It didn’t.)

Stephen H. Schneider, a climate scientist at Stanford University and a leading commentator on global warming from the science community, said in a phone interview that the planet’s slow burn just doesn’t compel people in an election season, “especially in the wintertime when the economy is going south.”

He recalled a conversation with an editor at the LA Times two decades ago, when 1988 was named the hottest year on record. “Why should we run an editorial on this?” the editor asked.

Schneider answered him with a question. “If the Dow Jones hits a record high, would you run an editorial on that?” he said. The editor recognized Schneider’s point, and ran an editorial on the 1988 heat record.

On January 2, 1989, Time Magazine named “Endangered Earth” its “Planet of the Year.” More than a decade later, Schneider said, a writer at the magazine told him he had to fight to get another cover story on global warming.

“There tends to be this belief with environmental stories that if you’ve done it in the last five years, then you’ve done it,” Schneider said.

“But with political stories, economic stories, war stories, Britney stories – that’s not done. That we can redo, redo, redo. Obviously, these guys have focus groups and they pander to the titillation of the audience that gives them ratings.”

There are other reasons the climate issue has been given a pass by much of the media and the candidates, some political scientists say.

Cass, from the College of the Holy Cross, said the American political system makes it very difficult for single issues to become dominant in a presidential campaign in America.

That’s not the case in a country like Germany, where its proportional political system has allowed the Green Party to win a place in national government.

“It forces (mainstream) politicians to not ignore those issues, because they know if they ignore them … those votes will go to the Green Party,” Cass said. “So it forces those issues much more strongly onto the national agenda.”

Another reason the climate issue is not more of a focus for candidates is that the adverse effects of continued warming are long term and incremental, while the costs of addressing it are immediate and high.

“That combination makes it extremely difficult to make the case that we need to do something now to benefit not necessarily our generation but our children’s generation and our grandchildren’s generations,” Cass said.

And it’s especially difficult when people are worried about losing their homes or jobs – or both.

“The economy is dominating everything today,” said Eric Smith, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an expert on public opinion on energy and the environment.

“The ‘Let’s lay out a big roadmap to the 21st century’ kind of argument … sounds good, but it’s not something you can talk about in the middle of a potential recession or in the middle of a war and expect people to respond to it,” Smith said.

Schneider, from Stanford, said that a big obstacle to covering the climate issue consistently and well lies within news organizations, with specialist reporters and beats being replaced by general assignment reporters as newsrooms downsize.

“We’ve had major regression in parts of the media where the corporate culture has decided that a general assignment reporter can cover anything but a sports event,” he said. “That still requires specialists.”

There is reason for hope that the climate issue will get more airing by the time November 4 arrives, some campaign observers say.

Early this summer, as the general election takes off, there will be clearer policy differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates than there are within either of the parties now.

“Hillary and Obama, for example, are not looking at the big picture. They’re barely even looking toward November,” Smith said.

If McCain is the Republican nominee, however, he’ll likely raise the climate issue in the general election campaign because of his personal interest in it and to promote his legislative record, Smith said.

Congressional elections, meanwhile, could prove at least as significant as the presidential election because it’s Congress that would ultimately craft groundbreaking legislation, Cass argued.

The climate story will continue to be a tough one for candidates to talk about and for journalists to report, according to Evan Cornog, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review.

“Obviously no terrorist this side of a James Bond novel could raise the sea level by the amount that will create havoc, globally – but that’s what global warming can do,” Cornog said.

“The problem is we respond to villains. We respond to narratives. And the narrative around global warming is too complicated and too lacking in characters to arrest people’s attentions.”

A sampling of recent newspaper editorials and columns on the climate issue

The New York Times previewed the Bali negotiations on Dec. 3.

In the Seattle Times on Nov. 28, Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, wrote: “Climate change could be the defining issue in the 2008 presidential election.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Nov. 15 chastised the federal government for its lack of action, and reviewed actions by Midwestern states.

The Journal Sentinel on Nov. 4 praised the Lieberman-Warner cap and trade proposal in Congress.

The LA Times has written a series of editorials on climate change, although none of the segments shown here focused on the presidential election.

The Washington Post wrote on May 14 about then-Democratic candidate Christopher Dodd’s carbon tax proposals.

The Sacramento Bee wrote about the latest IPCC reports on May 6.

On Feb. 7 of last year, Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote that anyone who proposes to cut greenhouse gases by the amounts talked about today – 80 percent below current levels by 2050 – is not being honest because the challenge is all but impossible. “It’s a debate we ought to have – but probably won’t,” he wrote. “Any realistic response would be costly, uncertain and no doubt unpopular. That’s one truth too inconvenient for almost anyone to admit.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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