The only problem with the coverage of McCain’s speech, and it was fairly minor, was the language used in many headlines and leads, which described yesterday’s event as a “break” from the Bush administration. The Washington Post, Wired, and ABC News all did it the same way. It is one thing to say that Mac was distancing himself from Bush, even rebuking him, but he didn’t “break” from the administration yesterday. He did that in 2003 when he introduced the first Climate Stewardship Act with Joe Lieberman.
Beyond the speech, there were also hints in the coverage about which tacks reporters should take moving forward. The first and most obvious question - why is McCain proposing emissions reductions of 60 percent below 1990 levels by mid-century when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton call for the scientifically accepted 80 percent? Matthew Yglesias posed this question rhetorically at The Atlantic online, but some intrepid reporter absolutely must put it to him directly:
What I’d really like to hear from McCain is about a different departure from environmental orthodoxy — why, if he believes that global warming is a real problem that we should tackle by reducing carbon emissions, has he written a bill that doesn’t reduce emissions enough to tackle the problem? Presumably McCain’s belief about the nature of the problem comes from the same scientific sources as everyone else’s — so why’s he endorsing half-measures?
Beyond that most basic facet of his policy recommendations, there are much, much thornier issues for journalists to untangle. For example, a number of publications pointed out that McCain’s most significant departure from his prepared remarks was a last-minute decision to pull a line supporting punitive tariffs on countries (read, China and India) that do not commit to international greenhouse gas emissions reductions. In addition to its noteworthy coverage of the speech, The Wall Street Journal was the only paper that appeared to dedicate an entire article to the telling maneuver, which was undertaken to avoid making McCain look like he was against the central GOP tenet of open trade. This is going to be a sticking point between him and his eventual Democratic opponent, and one that reporters must press both of them on.
Another issue that begs for more exploration is McCain’s position that businesses initially be allowed to meet 100 percent of their reductions targets by buying carbon offsets. Unlike Obama and Clinton, he also believes that initially emissions credits under a cap-and-trade scheme should be allotted free to businesses rather than auctioned off at a cost. Then there is the matter of encoding a “safety valve” into climate legislation, which pulls the plug on runaway carbon prices if the cap-and-trade scheme begins to threaten economic health. Only a couple of outlets, including Plenty magazine, mentioned McCain’s opposition to this, but given what we saw with the gas-tax controversy, it may come up again. We also need to know if the candidates think the initial number of pollution credits businesses receive should be based on their current emissions or amount of electricity they produce.
At any rate, the electoral implications of climate change have received more attention in the last two days than they have in months. One telltale sign is the number of political blogs, in addition to the regular environment and energy blogs, that have weighed in on yesterday’s event.
But it can’t stop there. McCain’s speech has given journalists the incentive they need to dig into these questions in ways that they did not during the primary election. If the press does its job, it’s hard to imagine that global warming and energy issues will remain low on voters’ list of priorities.