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Environment an Also-Ran Election Issue

Economic Woes Push Energy Concerns to Back Burner in Presidential Race

Drilling for oil and funding alternative energy sources were topics of discussion for both John McCain and Barack Obama, pushing environmental issues to a level of visibility unprecedented in a presidential election. Then Wall Street took front and center, leaving environmental journalists wondering how big a role environmental issues would play in pre-election debates, whether the media will pay attention and whether voters will vote the issue. The odds aren’t great.

“Traditionally environmental issues haven’t been high on the agenda,” said SEJ President Tim Wheeler, a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. “They don’t appear to be front and center of the public mind right now given the economy and the recent meltdown on Wall Street.”

Despite the shift in focus, this summer’s $4-per-gallon gas prices made consumers pay attention to energy issues and, to some degree, environmental issues, and changed the resulting political discussion. “This is one of the first years where the candidates are talking about environmental issues as a primary issue on the campaign trail,” said Christy George, SEJ’s first VP for programs and special projects producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

News Cycle Slaves

Even so, noted Margie Kriz, energy and environmental correspondent at the National Journal, it’s difficult to keep these issues in the public eye. “There are so many issues breaking all the time with a campaign,” she said. “They’re slaves to the news cycle. Both Obama and McCain are interested in doing something on climate. But in day-to-day issues, I don’t think the average American is as interested in climate change as Wall Street.”

The environment may not be one of the election season’s more prominent issues, but one change is the degree to which the media and the public at large are beginning to see the connection between energy and the environment. For Felicity Barringer, New York Times national correspondent for environmental issues, the hitherto “thin distinction” between environmental and energy issues has limited conversation on the environment. “Decades ago, a construct was created, not just by news organizations but by the political world at large, that fire was important, but that the flames were a business concern because the heat from the flames was sold in the commercial markets, and the smoke, which could get people sick, was an environmental concern,” she said. “There’s a growing realization that it’s one fire, and trying to make an artificial distinction where the smoke meets the flames is difficult at best.”

The current election cycle may very well give a boost to that evolving perspective. “The realization that this distinction is artificial is coming in general, and presidential elections have a way of crystallizing an emerging consensus,” she said.

CNN correspondent Miles O’Brien agreed that the public is beginning to connect the dots. “People are connecting the war, the energy crunch and climate change issues in ways they hadn’t before,” he said. “The debate on climate change has finally come around. There will always be some dead-enders, but the American people have moved along. Both candidates have pledged to do more on this front than George Bush, so we’ll see some changes here.”

But that doesn’t mean that environmental issues will float to the top of the campaign agenda of either candidate. “In any election year for the past two decades, you will never find environmental issues or even energy issues rising to the top six in a campaign, or jumping ahead of national security, foreign policy or education,” Ms. Barringer said. “This year, the energy issue will move higher on the scale, but I don’t think it’ll bump into that short list.”

Upstaged

Energy issues, and therefore environmental issues, are related to nearly every important topic on the campaign trail, from the economy to foreign policy. But they’ll still take a back seat to the economy. “I’m not arguing the logic of it,” said Ms. Barringer. “The attention paid to [the environment] by the candidates will be real, but it won’t be a consuming issue for them or the press, and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves.”

From Mr. O’Brien’s point of view, the public may actually be demanding more information on the environment than is obvious from the political debate. “People are thirsting for bold leadership to get out of the rut,” he said. “The public is ahead, as they frequently are, of the politicians. There’s an opportunity for a leader to address those cross-currents.”

The media hasn’t done a good enough job in reporting on these issues, said Mr. O’Brien. “From my perch covering the environment, frankly it’s disappointing to watch the mainstream media,” he said. “The way it is covered is frequently in horse-race terms. At one point, I pulled together the numbers. In the primary stage of the elections, there were 2,000 questions asked of the candidates by Sunday morning broadcasts. And there were two questions about the environment, and one of them was asked by a snowman in the YouTube debate. To me, that’s very discouraging.”

SEJ always plays a strong role in educating its members about the candidates’ viewpoints on environmental issues and the 2008 presidential election has been no exception. Ms. Kriz and SEJ board member Dina Capiello, who reports on the environment at AP’s Washington bureau, organized an April panel on energy and climate change at the National Press Club, featuring energy policy advisers to the then three presidential candidates, Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain and Hillary Clinton. The event went well and exposed attending journalists to the candidates’ points of view. “They all agreed they had to do something on climate change,” said Ms. Kriz.

One problem is that political journalists—not environmental ones—are covering the presidential elections and they have no training or background in topics that can be dauntingly scientific. “The newsroom is populated with people deathly afraid of science,” said Mr. O’Brien. He pointed out that, for the past several years, a lack of scientific background has led to journalists giving too much credibility to global warming naysayers. “Combine that [fear of science] with the journalistic convention of telling both sides of the story, and it’s easy to fall victim to fringe skepticism out there and treat global warming like it’s a 50-50 proposition.”

No Debating It

As time has passed, however, even the most science-phobic political journalist now realizes that global warming isn’t a debatable topic. “Somewhere along the way, the Tobacco Institute lost, and we can now say that cigarettes kill you,” said Mr. O’Brien, recalling a period of time when journalists gave equal weight to the tobacco industry-funded institute’s “findings” on tobacco. “For a long time, we were trained to see both sides. But what happens is eventually there’s such a body of evidence that to do so is misleading. Journalists think it is like a criminal trial where you need a unanimous jury. But it’s more like a civil trial where you only need a majority.”

When Nov. 4 rolls around, one question that will remain will be whether Americans will vote the issue. “People who really care about the environment will,” said Mr. Wheeler. “But polls show it’s not a large percent of the populace. It’s a reinforcement loop. Polls show that climate change or environmental issues are second- or third-tier issues for voters, so the media then tends to cover those issues that show up more in opinion polls—and therefore the public doesn’t read much about environmental issues. Our challenge as environmental journalists is to show the connectedness of environmental issues to energy debates and other pocketbook issues.”

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