O.K., It's Time To Play The Climate Change Card In The Campaign

May 15, 2008


The hard truth of the matter is that few of the reporters most likely to read this column will be in a good position to ask the presidential election front runners or nominees penetrating questions about environmental policy.

Few of them may have the opportunity, even briefly along a rope line, to probe a candidate's familiarity with "cap and trade" versus carbon taxes, wetlands restoration versus coastal development, nuclear energy versus coal versus biofuels versus conservation.

Look hard enough, and I'm pretty sure we'll find that the late comedian Rodney "I-don't-get-no-respect" Dangerfield was downdeep an SEJ member. Before he was deep-down, that is. Surely he shoulda been.

SEJ members know full well the Dangerfield curse. It is one they feel when each cycle of national electoral campaigns again short-shrifts their pet issues. One view here is that this certainly was the case during most of the protracted presidential primary campaigns. Environmental issues were by and large unexplored in any real depth. And it's not at all clear that these issues – including the 800-pound gorilla of climate change – will fare much better in the general election campaign. That is particularly likely if, as now appears possible, there's no widespread gap perceived in the leading candidates' positions on climate change – those candidates at this writing being just Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

To say that either of the leading candidates' environmental pronouncements on climate change, for instance, have been more detailed than another's is to damn with the faintest of praise. The details of these issues will simply have to wait.

And, perhaps, wait and wait again.Wait certainly until we're at last into the heart and relative "meat" (read substance, a relative term in this context) of the general election campaigning. So that's clearly one view, and it can't be easily dismissed. But there's another view too.

This one holds that, perhaps alone among the environmental issues, climate change at least has already gotten some candidate attention, even during the primaries. That's so even though the politics of pursuing each party's committed "base" made it inconvenient, no pun, for McCain to focus on his maverick position in favor of regulating carbon dioxide emissions.With all the other Republican candidates at most "luke-cold" on ratcheting greenhouse gas emissions, and with the party's base increasingly against it, there were perhaps easier ways for McCain to commit hari-kari…. but not many.

On the Democratic side of the primary campaigning, the challenge of getting air minutes or air time on climate change was just the opposite:With a full initial slate of candidates expressing real concern over climate change, the public (and to at least some extent even the mainstream political and general press) can be excused for not ferreting out lots of daylight between them. Once it all came down to Clinton and Obama, the problem is little different: "There's not a whole lot of distance between Obama and Clinton," analyst and writer David Roberts wrote in a posting on Grist.org, initially posted on the blog Passing Though.

It's an assessment many may find, however reluctantly, to be on-target.

If misery indeed loves company,environmentalreporterscantakeheart from the plight of other policy wonks and beat reporters convinced their issues too have gotten the short end of a short shrift.

A February 5 front-page Wall Street Journal headline provides a snapshot of the situation: "Issues Recede in '08 Contest as Voters Focus on Character," Gerald Seib's three-column piece cried out. "Candidates Pitch Style, Avoid Big Ideas," the subhead read.

In a prolonged Democratic primary campaign in which "day one" and "experience" vied for attention with "inspiration" and "change" it's fair to think that the leading candidates for now were virtually splitting hairs. Each, after all, had staked out clear positions of concern over the prospects of harmful climate change.

On the Republican side, nominee and Arizona SenatorJohnMcCainhadalreadydoneaboutallhe might in alienating his party's conservative"base."Noneedtorubglobal-warming salt in thewounds of the leery party faithful. No wonder the candidates weren't out there bandying about their aggressive stances to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Don't forget: even "green" candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry went mute on environment as they traipsed the country looking for voters.

To wit, the angst of many environmental reporters that the issue is barely making it into voters' conscience, with the campaign press among those bearing much responsibility.

So….where from here? If environmental and science reporters are likely to remain back-benched during the campaign, must their issues also suffer in silence?

For discussion purposes, let's again focus on climate change, the single environmental issue considered by many to have a shot at "most likely to succeed" in at least making a small splash with the campaign press pool.

If knowledgeable science and environmental reporters themselves are unlikely to be posing the questions to the candidates directly, they might well mentor those in their news organizations who do and will have those responsibilities.

Are those reporters angling to ask some public health questions? To raise some energy conservation or nuclear power issues? To ask about winding down the Iraq war,winding up theU.S. economy, or simply rewinding and starting anewwith thewhole Iran,MiddleEast, Pakistan, ad infinitum imbroglios?Or perhaps probing the in sand outs of the federal deficits, the enormous challenges facing New Orleans and coastal Louisiana, drought and wildfires in the West, the everywhere/ every-day commuting and sprawl quandary?

Are they aware of how those issues affect, and are affected by, the climate challenge? Can you spare them a few minutes so they don't look entirely bug-eyed and clueless the next time a candidate tells them "the science is enormously uncertain and controversial" or humans can't possibly be affecting something so vast and immense as the atmosphere or the oceans?

Environmental journalists can keep beating their collective heads against the impenetrable walls as they continue complaining among themselves that their issues don't get no campaign respect. Or they can go to Plan B and take their case directly to their editors and newsroom and journalism colleagues, give them some ammunition to make the connections between what those editors see as the issues of the day and what environmental journalists and many scientists see as the issue of the century.

At least in that way, they'll have played their own cards as best they can. And not let the campaign press simply say "How were we to know?

Bud Ward is an independent journalism educator and founder/former editor of Environment Writer. He now is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue


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