Daylight on Climate

Mac gives the press room to work

It’s nice how the situation changes so quickly. Well, maybe not changes, but at least presents the opportunity for change. We’ve spent most of the primary season griping about reporters’ inability to open up the candidates’ positions on global warming issues. They tried in many cases, but there just didn’t seem to be enough differences between the leading Democrats and John McCain. On occasion we’d speculate (perhaps hope) that the general election might change that, but polls consistently showed that global warming also ranked low among voters’ priorities.

Now, John McCain is staking his presidential future in part on the idea that climate concerns will sway the ballots of independent and moderate swing voters. Yesterday, the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican nominee gave a speech at a Portland, Oregon, windmill manufacturer, in which he laid out his plan to tackle climate change. In so doing, he made global warming part of a series of issues - including national security, health care, and the economy - that he is using to begin the last leg of the race.

With yesterday’s speech, McCain was specifically hoping to distance himself from George W. Bush, who has not received high marks for environmental stewardship during his presidency. The press was all over it in that news-of-the-day sort of way. Reporters homed in on the not-Bush strategy, the key elements of Mac’s greenhouse gas reduction scheme (and that it’s not as strict as the Democrats’ plans or the Lieberman-Warner climate bill), and the fact that his environmental record is actually quite muddled.

There is a larger significance to the speech that reporters should be aware of, though. In setting up climate (and in an upcoming speech, energy) as a pivotal issue, McCain is giving reporters license to go beyond the stump-speech rehash. This is the daylight environmental journalists have been looking for. It is time to set the pry bar and pull.

The coverage of yesterday’s speech offers hints to a number of strategies reporters may use to do that. Most journalists cobbled their articles together from prepared remarks that the McCain camp sent out on Sunday and Monday. The best pieces, like those from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, seemed to rely least on those scripted quotes and offered some context instead. The Times, for instance, wrote that:

Mr. McCain’s speech, a compilation and sharpening of many of his existing proposals, was most notable as a political document that sought to appeal to the independents he is wooing for November. It put him slightly to the right of center in the environmental debate.

The Journal deserves credit for being the only newsroom to add some nuance to environmental advocates’ opinions about McCain. Many outlets, like Grist and National Public Radio, rounded up a the usual green suspects, including the League of Conservation Voters, to give the not-good-enough reaction to McCain’s speech (NPR also has a very nice sidebar on his climate-related record and proposals). The Journal, on the other hand, has Sierra Club president Carl Pope admitting that the Arizona senator has “room to grow”:

In a sign of Sen. McCain’s potential appeal to environmentally conscious voters, a top official at the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s most influential environmental groups, said the group might not endorse any candidate for president. The group endorsed Democrats in six of the past seven presidential elections; it declined to endorse a candidate in 1988.

At the regional level, The Dallas Morning News offered a similar helping of useful context, with reaction quotes from the governor’s office and a number of lines about how climate legislation could affect Texas. And The Oregonian carried a great article that bore an Associated Press byline, but had good local perspective founded on a truly excellent question:

Will McCain’s global-warming pitch work with green-savvy voters, not just in Oregon, but places like Washington and California, traditional Democratic strongholds where McCain’s advisers have said he believes he can compete for votes from independents and moderate Democrats?

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.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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