Climate and the Campaign

U.S. databases v. Australian news

As the federal election rapidly approaches, climate change, energy, and environment have become leading issues among candidates and the media … in Australia.

It was a big week down under. Last Sunday, Prime Minister John Howard announced new national renewable energy targets in Canberra, while Al Gore effectively endorsed opposition leader Kevin Rudd at a press conference in Melbourne. Rudd’s Labor party leads Howard’s Liberal party in polls, and in advance of the November or December parliamentary election they have both been strutting their “green” credentials. As Reuters reported Monday:

A long-running drought in much of Australia and warnings by international scientists about the impact of global warming have spooked voters and elevated climate change to an election-turning issue.

The Australian media have also done their part to elevate environmental concern from campaign topic to campaign ethic. On Tuesday, The Age, a Melbourne-based daily, published this query, along with its results:

With climate change set to be one of the defining issues of this year’s federal election, The Age asked all the main parties what, if anything, they were doing to measure, reduce and offset the greenhouse emissions generated by their election campaigns.

Unfortunately, the same statements cannot be made of environmental issues’ relevance to the American presidential election. In terms of global media coverage of climate this week, most of the attention went to a special meeting at the United Nations and a summit at the White House, both dedicated to finding solutions to man-made global warming. But unlike the Australian press, U.S. journalists-and U.S. presidential candidates-have thus far not made environmental issues a major part of the campaign.

That said, however, there are a few very useful stores of information online - from media and non-media sources alike - that scrutinize the candidates’ green credentials. Although it cannot be said that climate change is “an election-turning” or “defining” issue, environmental concerns are perhaps as prominent as they have ever been. In effect, the global warming question has merged with the energy independence (i.e., security) question among the candidates, almost all of whom have platform statements supporting the development of renewable fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Many experts expect some form of legislation mandating either or both of those as soon as the new president, whoever he or she may be, takes office.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why the American press has been relatively lethargic about teasing out specifics from candidates and dissecting the differences among them. In fact, there are some very significant observations to be made about the presidential hopefuls and their positions on energy and the environment, not least of which, as Grist columnist David Roberts put it, is that “the leaders in the polls tend not to be the leaders on these issues.”

Grist, in a partnership with Outside magazine, has created what is likely the best database around for researching candidates’ environmental platforms. Actually, it is a rather phenomenal compendium of information that I will not even pretend to have read in its entirety. Grist and Outside are interviewing all of the candidates, asking questions about energy, the environment, and their related policy proposals. The Grist Web site features the transcript and a short audio clip from each interview. There is also an introductory paragraph and fact sheet for each candidate, both of which are filled with useful links to other sources of information. These profiles are currently available for all the Democratic candidates, and will be coming soon for the Republicans, according to Grist.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats (with the exception of John McCain on the GOP side) have been the most outspoken in the environmental arena, but despite general agreement that something must be done about global warming, there are noteworthy differences among the candidates that beg for explication and elaboration in the mainstream press. Hillary Clinton wants to create a “Strategic Energy Fund.” Barack Obama is still trying to backpedal from his early support for liquefied coal. John Edwards has parlayed climate concerns into concern for “green-collar jobs” that fit his anti-poverty crusade. Chris Dodd is the only candidate who supports a carbon tax rather than the much more popular cap-and-trade system. And Dennis Kucinich wants to model a “Works Green Administration” after Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration.

Obviously, there is a lot to digest, and there are a couple of other media and non-media databases out there besides the one from Grist/Outside. This week, as part of its Election Guide 2008 project, The New York Times posted a detailed index of “The Presidential Candidates on Climate Change” on its Web site. Greenwire, the energy and environment news service, has good running coverage of the presidential race with articles listed under “Campaign 2008.” The League of Conservation Voters has a large information repository, “The Heat is On,” which includes a useful list of news articles and editorials about environmental issues and the campaign. Finally, and somewhat unexpectedly, The Council of Foreign Relations has a good breakdown of candidate positions on climate change.

As useful and impressive as these dedicated Web pages are, however, what voters and the general public need are more breaking news articles that cover what the candidates are saying about climate, energy, and the environment, and that press them to say more. For concerned readers, the Grist/Outside database and others like it are a great place to begin looking for information. But American journalists should take a note from the Australian press and start turning out more timely copy.

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