Fusing Climate to the Campaign

First presidential forum on energy a sign of (slow) progress

Three presidential candidates gathered at a forum in Los Angeles on Saturday to talk specifically about global warming and energy issues. It was the “first time in history” that this has happened, according to a press release from the League of Conservation Voters, which helped organize the event.

None of the newspapers that covered the forum seem to have used the first-time angle, though. In fact, the gathering drew little mainstream press relative to other campaign stops. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Associated Press were all there, so the coverage wasn’t trivial. On the other hand, the event was not televised and the only way to watch it live was via a Web cast from Grist, the online environmental magazine that sponsored the affair.

The relative lack of attention isn’t terribly surprising, given that only Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich (all Democrats) showed up, despite the fact that all the candidates from both major parties were invited. The dearth of publicity is also not surprising given the forum’s novelty, and it’s reasonable that the national press did not echo the claim that the gathering was a “first-ever.” I haven’t been able to verify that myself. Yet the fact remains that even light a few candidates, Saturday’s event set a new precedent for addressing environmental issues during a presidential campaign.

It is lamentable, then, that the AP and the two Times (New York and LA), covered the forum like they would any other campaign stop or stump speech, with only passing reference to its larger significance (though there was ample mention of the event’s concurrence with a major climate meeting in Spain). To it’s credit, The New York Times’ Christine Hauser summed up the situation in a pithy phrase, even if she did not have the space (it was the shortest article on the forum) to elaborate:

The candidates had previously released their proposals on global warming and energy, the focus of the forum. But the opportunity to reiterate them and take questions from a panel of experts in a state that is not holding an early primary highlighted the impact that environmental issues have taken in the campaign.

The Los Angeles Times published the longest account (it was in the paper’s backyard, after all) and seemed to find the most substance in the candidates’ words. (Appearing one-by-one on stage at the Wadsworth Theatre, they were each given ten minutes to make opening remarks and then answered questions from two panelists: David Roberts of Grist, and Mary Nichols of the California Air Resources Board.) “If the intent was to buff their green credentials,” wrote Cathleen Decker, “more than anything the gathering thrust into glaring relief the differing approaches” of the candidates. In this respect, Decker continued, the environment-specific gathering gave the dark horse Kucinich an advantage: “Unlike most of the candidate debates so far, where he has been relegated to the sidelines, the format Saturday gave him equal standing.”

(Of course, Kucinich also promised to give every person in the United States a publicly-funded job, and then didn’t seem to have any idea of how to back up that promise when challenged by Grist’s Roberts.)

There were other interesting sound bites. Edwards didn’t really elaborate on his existing energy platform, but repeatedly mentioned a “lack of backbone” on Capitol Hill regarding environmental legislation. Along those lines, Clinton seemed to be the most frank about what the largely pro-green audience could expect politicians to accomplish, asserting that Congress would never pass a bill that would please everybody.

Even if newspaper coverage didn’t do much more than replay Clinton’s, Edwards’, and Kucinich’s platforms verbatim, however, it was a step in the right direction. As David Sandretti, who works for the League of Conservation Voters and handled most of the event’s media outreach, explained to me, “Newspapers are full of stories about the price of oil and the melting ice caps. And they are full of stories about the presidential campaign. But never the twain have met.” Saturday’s forum certainly helped to remedy that situation, but the event itself was an example of how difficult it still is to generate widespread publicity for environmental issues.

“It’s a weird situation in that the candidates care more about these issues than the media does,” Roberts told me over the phone, a day before the forum.

In the months leading up to the event, the League of Conservation Voters approached all of the major networks, some affiliates, and CNN in an effort to secure live TV coverage. For a variety reasons, they all declined, according to Sandretti. Some wanted to use their own moderator (instead of Steve Curwood, the host of public radio’s “Living on Earth” program) or expand the forum’s focus to include more than just energy and global warming. Others wanted more than just the three candidates.

So, as much as the “first-ever” forum highlighted the growing prominence of environment issues in the presidential campaign, it also revealed persistent obstacles.

In Roberts’ opinion, the lack of live television coverage isn’t as much of a concern today as it would have been even four years ago, because of the Internet. “The one-time audience is not the significant audience anymore,” he told me. “Once stories or videos get online they’re evergreen in a sense. They can get passed around for eternity and over time, you can reach an even larger audience than TV does.”

CNN, it should be said, is the only news outlet-broadcast or print-that appears to have covered Saturday’s forum as something more than a set of stump speeches. In a three-minute segment posted online today, correspondent Bill Schneider talks less about what was said at the gathering and more about how difficult it is to focus the public’s attention on energy and the environment. He mentions the “first-ever” bit, and he interviews Roberts after the forum, where the Grist columnist made many of the same media-oriented complaints that he made to me last Friday.

Four years from now, as a new batch of candidates gears up to challenge whoever wins this presidential election, I predict that a forum (or even a full-fledged debate) dedicated to energy and global warming will seem obvious and draw the coverage it deserves. Perhaps more candidates will attend, and the organizers will be more prepared than they were this time. Then, maybe, I can stop complaining about the media putting the event in context, and focus on what is actually said.

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