Candidates clam up on climate

Reporters call out Obama and Romney’s silence

Nary a word has been spoken about climate change on the presidential campaign trail, and it’s a silence that some journalists find deafening.

In the last few weeks, a variety of reporters have called out the candidates for utterly ignoring the issue. The Associated Press’s Steven R. Hurst, for instance, reminded readers that just four months ago, Barack Obama told Rolling Stone that he suspected climate change would become a major point of debate.

“I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” Obama said. But that promise has come to naught, Hurst reported. Instead, Obama is fighting Republican challenger Mitt Romney “over the struggling American economy and stubbornly high unemployment.”

The New York Times’s Felicity Barringer observed that the candidates are willing to talk about energy policy (as they did last week), largely because it is intimately related to the jobs debate. But “climate change has been the issue that national politicians seem to avoid at all costs,” Barringer wrote. That’s a problem, National Journal’s Amy Harder argued, since “the next president will have to address [global warming], no matter who wins in November.”

Apart from the heat waves, droughts, and wildfires that have “thrust climate change back into the spotlight,” Harder wrote, “the State and Transportation departments must address a European Union cap-and-trade law aimed at forcing airlines to pay fees for greenhouse gases emitted by all flights to and from Europe. Yet neither candidate is addressing these unavoidable realities—at least not yet.”

Last week, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released the results of a national survey conducted in March, which suggested that “taking a pro-climate stand appears to benefit candidates more than hurt them with registered voters.” According to the report:

  • •  A majority of all registered voters (55 percent) say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote.

  • •  Among these climate change issue voters, large majorities believe global warming is happening and support action by the US to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.

  • •  Independents lean toward “climate action” and look more like Democrats than Republicans on the issue.

  • •  A pro-climate action position wins votes among Democrats and Independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.

  • •  Policies to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels and promote renewable energy are favored by a majority of registered voters across party lines.

  • •  These patterns are found nationally and among 10 swing states.

Polls are murky, though. A survey conducted in June by The Washington Post and Stanford University also found that most Americans accept that climate change is real and want the government to take corrective action, but that they don’t think it’s the country’s biggest environmental problem. Moreover, there are a lot of other, non-environmental problems that people would like to see politicians address first, Gallup has consistently found.

The public might show more concern if the presidential candidates would only debate climate policy, or if the media could get them to do so, Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle suggested in post for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In a recent study, Brulle and his colleagues found that statements by “elite” figures were the largest single factor influencing how much people worry about climate change. Quoting US Sen. John Kerry, Brulle accused Obama and Romney of a “conspiracy of silence,” pointing out that:

Citizens use media coverage of controversial issues to gauge the positions of elites they find credible, and then interpret the news based on ideology and party identifications.

It may still be true, as the AP’s Hurst put it, that “there is little chance that the few undecided American voters who will decide the razor-close election will cast their ballots based on the candidates’ position on climate change,” but taken together, the recent polls do suggest that climate change is an issue that deserves more attention on the campaign trail.

The reporters who’ve called out Obama and Romney for clamming up are doing what they can. In late July, The New York Times launched a campaign blog called The Agenda, which has made “the planet” one if its core issues. In a post about the “climate and energy stalemate,” reporter John Broder explained that the paper “hopes to jump-start a discussion” over the next couple of months.

That’s exactly the right attitude. Journalists need to force the candidates to debate climate policy, and they should continue to shame them for their silence as long as they refuse.

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