Climate Goes Prime-Time with Couric

CBS candidate interviews lack substance, but the time slot’s hard to beat

Global warming went prime-time last night as CBS’s Katie Couric asked each of the presidential candidates to answer a single question: Is the threat of climate change “overblown?” The segment lasted only seven minutes and didn’t reveal anything new, but it’s hard to knock the news network because, after all, that time slot is gold.

Lest CBS and Couric receive too much credit, however, there are criticisms to be made up front. As the blog Solve Climate pointed out yesterday afternoon:

Of all the ways a responsible news organization can ask questions about global warming, why did CBS decide to ask the question inside a skeptical and meaningless frame?

Given the amount time candidates had to respond, Couric was essentially just asking them to spout their talking points on climate change. So why the pointed phrasing? According to Solve Climate, “It’s marketing, it’s entertainment-perhaps even a gambit to compete with Fox-but it’s not responsible journalism.”

That is true to a certain extent. The question’s provocative construction - is global warming overblown - is definitely a marketing ploy to grab viewers’ attention. It also contradicts the very robust scientific evidence that climate change is a man-made problem that deserves immediate attention. Yet the question is understandable, not only because it is more likely to attract an audience, but also because at least one presidential candidate, Fred Thompson, still answers “yes.” Most of the other GOP hopefuls who are skeptical about the threat of climate change, including Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, have learned to at least answer such questions evasively, talking instead about energy independence, conservation, or the need for renewable fuels. Before discussing that any further, however, I should point out that Couric asked a much worse question, rhetorically, as she teased the segment before a commercial: “Much more on CBS News ahead. Is global warming for real? Our series, Primary Questions, is next.”

It is one thing to ask if the hype surrounding man-made climate change is “overblown.” That’s a qualitative assessment. It is another thing to ask if the phenomenon itself is “real.” Hard numbers back up global warming, and you’ll find relatively few skeptics these days who will attempt to controvert that, even if they believe natural cycles are more to blame than human beings.

At any rate, we’ll call the “overblown” question fair game this time around. If trends in public perception continue, hopefully next campaign season will call for more tact (and a full-fledged climate and energy debate). All of the Democratic candidates now support some form of mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reductions. On the GOP side, John McCain has long been a strong advocate of climate change mitigation measures. Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani are all very leery of government regulation-and still worry that a “green revolution” will harm the national economy-but they also acknowledge the reality of global warming and talk renewables and what-not.

Ultimately, you have to give Couric credit - she was drawing attention to a new and still underrepresented campaign issue on national, prime-time television. Her question may have been poorly worded, but no matter how she phrased it, there was only the one possible outcome anyway: the candidates would each have approximately half a minute to reiterate their platform positions on climate (although, to be fair, there are longer clips online.) Versions of all these statements are available on the candidates’ Web sites and elsewhere, but there is no doubt that lining them up on the evening news brought the information to many voters that wouldn’t have bothered to look it up.

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