Since the Iowa caucuses, campaign-trail discourse about climate change and energy has waned. “Media consign global warming to back burner,” read one headline in The San Francisco Chronicle last week. That is certainly true to a certain extent, and the Chronicle’s Zachary Coile cites a recent League of Conservation Voters analysis, which found that TV news anchors have given short shrift to climate, to prove his point. But Coile’s piece is a back-burner article itself. The analysis he points out was first reported here in mid-December and beyond that, Coile does nothing more than give a cursory round-up of the candidates’ positions on global warming. This should not reflect poorly on him, though. Try as they might, reporters just haven’t found enough fuel to turn global warming into a front-burner story during the primaries.
Last week, NPR’s Living on Earth made a noble effort to light such a fire, but with only limited results. Taking a cue from the growing importance of race in the election, Jeff Young traveled to South Carolina in the days before the Democratic primary there to ask black voters which environmental problems concerned them. The result was a refreshingly specific look at a troublesome local issue: the preponderance of polluted land and waterways in African-American neighborhoods. “This is one of the worst states in the nation as it pertains to the health of African Americans,” Young reported. “And unfortunately the vast majority of those dumps are in African-American neighborhoods, so environmental racism is alive and doing quite well here in South Carolina.”
As important and poignant as the issue is, however, one question remained, and Young had the good sense to put it to Democratic state representative Joe Neal:
YOUNG: Do people suffering the brunt of that, do they connect that to something they should vote on?
NEAL: Well, often they do. I think that many will make the decision as to who they will vote for not explicitly on the basis of their own situation, but on the larger sense of fairness and justice in all policies, and particularly in environmental policy.
The segment was an intrepid piece of reporting, and certainly the kind we need more of, but ultimately, Young is left with little more than the conclusion that environmental justice could play a “potent” role in voters’ decisions. One of the reasons it may not (and one of the reasons why the press has trouble moving climate to the front burner) is that all of the Democratic candidates, as well as John McCain, agree that we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade system, support renewable energy sources, and generally reduce humankind’s environmental impact. They differ on how they would achieve these goals, but not radically so, and not enough to make global warming a major campaign issue.
Take an editorial from The Sacramento Bee last week, which argued that in the run up to Super Tuesday (when California and twenty-three other states will hold their primaries), candidates “should be pressed to answer a simple yes or no question: Will they allow California to implement its 2002 law limiting emissions of greenhouse gases from cars and trucks sold in this state?” It seemed like a great idea and, like NPR’s report from South Carolina, a great way to get at a specific issue that is unique to the state. Indeed, if any voters could move climate to the front burner, it would be Californians, who have led the country in pro-environment legislation over the last year and a half. But candidate responses to the Bee’s question were of the same, concordant variety that has kept global warming from being a defining issue at the polls.