The Candidates on California’s Emissions Waiver

The SacBee gets some answers, sort of

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.

According to the editorial, Barack Obama and John Edwards replied that they would grant the wavier. Hillary Clinton didn’t respond to the paper’s query, but the editors didn’t have to wait more than a day for her position. Last Thursday, Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works committee, introduced a bill that would overturn a recent Environmental Protection Agency decision to deny the waiver that would have allowed California to set its own automobile emissions standards. Among the legislation’s supporters? Clinton and Obama. “With global warming an increasingly important issue for voters, the two presidential candidates have moved almost in lock step to show their backing for policies favored by environmentalists,” wrote Siohban Hughes for Dow Jones Newswires.

Unfortunately, Dow Jones was one of only a few outlets that picked up the rather significant news. The Salem-News in Oregon (one of twelve states that have adopted California’s emissions standards), focused on Clinton’s objection to the EPA denying the state’s waiver. It quotes her saying that, “If President Bush refuses to lead, it is time for him to get out of the way.” Though nobody seems to have pointed it out, Clinton is obviously parroting the watershed moment during the Bali climate talks last month, when the representative from Papua New Guinea said:

I would ask the United States, we ask for your leadership. But if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.

That statement led the American delegation to reverse course and “join consensus” just moments later. Clinton, no doubt, hopes that echoing that pivotal moment will work similar magic for her.

It probably won’t, at least not until the general election. According to the Bee’s editorial, none of the Republican candidate’s have weighed in on California’s emissions waiver. The only one that would be likely to support it is McCain. If he ends up squaring off against Clinton or Obama, climate change might remain an indecisive issue for voters (though again, the general election will bring new pressures, particularly from coal, oil and gas interests). Last week, the Associated Press published an article headlined, “Republicans differ on global warming,” which hearkens back to a New York Times article from mid-October headlined, “Global Warming Starts to Divide GOP Contenders.” Both of these pieces would have been much more accurate with headlines such as, “McCain differs from other Republicans on Global Warming.”

This is doesn’t mean that California journalists should stop pressing candidates on specific questions, like the future of their emissions waiver, or that journalists in South Carolina journalists should stop asking black voters about their environmental concerns. These are exceptionally responsible acts of journalism that have grown frustratingly rare during these months of political popularity contest. What it means is that turning climate change into a front-burner campaign issue might require more than ambitious reporting; it might need some real, squabble-worthy disagreement among the candidates themselves.

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