Big Play for Candidates’ Green Cred

Press revives environment’s role in the campaign…sort of

The environment’s importance to the presidential campaign hit a fresh zenith, media coverage-wise, yesterday, with a Newsweek cover that asks, “Who’s the Greenest of Them All?”

The article, by veteran science reporter Jerry Adler, revives, to certain extent, the national media’s attention to candidates’ eco-credentials. The story is part of Newsweek’s Environment and Leadership issue and April’s now regular wave of magazine Green Issues. “The environment, which typically ranks somewhere around ‘regulatory reform’ among voters’ concerns,” Adler writes, “has emerged as a leading issue in this election.” He cites pollster John Zogby’s claim last year that “more than three voters in 10 said they would take a candidate’s green credentials into account … up from just 11 percent in 2005.”

That may be so, and it is good news indeed, but as we have noted before, calling the environment a “leading issue” is somewhat controversial. For the last six months, headlines have been divided on the subject, with half talking about the environment receiving “unprecedented focus” (Des Moines Register) while the other half has it “catching on slowly” (Hartford Courant). I tend to think that the environment is less a “leading issue” than an emerging issue-there is a difference, after all, between voters taking candidates green credentials “into account” and them basing their votes on those credentials. Regardless, it’s worth noting that a different, but related argument is gaining resolution. In January, a headline in The San Francisco Chronicle argued that the media had “consigned” global warming to the “back burner.” The Newsweek cover story, though not focused exclusively on global warming, clearly changes that.

Looking farther afield, however, it still seems that environmental issues have more currency among journalists than they do within the general public. Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an usually long front-page article with the headline, “In Primary, It’s Not Easy Being Green.” The piece, by Dan Hopley, is one of the best newspaper stories to date on the subject of campaign greenery. Many regional papers have run articles summing up the candidates’ environmental positions, but few managed to dig deeper than their cursory platform statements. Hopley has that info, too, but with the benefit of more space (cheers to his editors) his piece offers a refreshing and realistic analysis of how “somewhere along the campaign trail, as mortgage, credit and stock market woes stole newscasts and front pages, the ‘e’ word morphed from the environment to the economy”:

As the candidates have criss-crossed the commonwealth leading up to the April 22 primary-also Earth Day-they have been sticking to scripts that focus on the war and the economy. Their ads talk about experience, special interests and hope. They’ve mentioned high fuel prices and alternative energy sources-mainly wind power and bio-fuels-but couched them as pocketbook issues or “green collar” job generating new industries.

That emphasis on the environment’s connection to the economy is echoed in the companion piece to Adler’s Newsweek cover story, headlined “A Leadership Reality Check.” The essay, by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, argues that “To go further, to truly tackle the greenhouse effect, will require the one thing from voters that few politicians dare to ask for and fewer achieve: massive public sacrifice.”

Indeed, despite earnest efforts (and some limited success), local reporters have had a tough time getting the candidates to talk about the specific environmental issues that impact different parts of the country and are most likely to affect voters’ personal finances. Thankfully, in addition to Newsweek high-profile treatment, at least one local paper recently made headway breaking that impasse.

On Sunday, The Oregonian in Portland published a very good three-part series about Hillary Clinton’s recent “quest” to win the state’s May 20 primary:

In Hillsboro, Clinton detailed how she wanted to follow Oregon’s lead to push for greater use of solar and wind energy and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She said that her highest priority was to slash America’s dependence on imported oil, which she argued endangers both national security and the environment.

However, Clinton blasted attempts by the federal government to force Oregon and other states to allow liquefied natural gas terminals. Although supporters say they can help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, critics of the proposed LNG terminals in Oregon say they pose environmental and safety dangers while doing little to encourage the use of renewable energy.

Obama voted for the LNG bill, setting up a controversy that could, in fact, elevate the environment from an emerging issue to the leading issue that Adler describes in Newsweek. To boot, The Oregonian series also includes an article about Clinton’s support for continuing millions of dollars in payments the federal government makes to Oregon to compensate for lost revenue resulting from bans on old-growth logging. Obama also supports reauthorizing the payments, but the story is ripe for development in the national media because it has a fascinating (but unmentioned) parallel in current international negotiations to draft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. A point of serious contention in those United Nations-mediated talks is a proposal to pay developing nations not to deforest their lands, which would mitigate global warming.

Given The Oregonian’s reporting, in addition to the articles in Newsweek and the Post-Gazette, perhaps it is fairest to say that the environment has finally become a leading presidential issue for the press, but that it is too early to tell whether or not the public has come around. Whatever the case may be, the conspicuous coverage is a good start.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.