No debate about environment

Hopes for questions about climate, public lands fall flat

The presidential candidates didn’t talk about the environment during their first debate on Wednesday. Nobody really expected them to; they just hoped that they would.

Leading up to the encounter, San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, InsideClimate News, and other outlets highlighted a 160,000-signature petition that nine environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, sent the debate’s moderator, PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer, urging him to ask the candidates about climate change. Their stories also mentioned, another petition project, run by two environmental groups, Forecast the Facts and Friends of the Earth Action, which has been tracking the candidates’ statements on the matter, and protesting the general lack thereof.

“When President Obama and Mitt Romney square off Wednesday in their first debate, global warming may be the biggest topic that neither wants to touch,” the Chronicle’s David Baker began.

While he turned out to be right, Baker and other reporters pointed to a few recent polls that suggested statements about climate change might play well with Democrats and swing voters. Chris Mooney had a nice rundown—replete with big, colorful bar graphs—of the various surveys at The Climate Desk, a reporting partnership that includes The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Guardian, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS’s public-affairs show Need To Know.

According to Mooney, the conventional wisdom that climate is a political loser for Obama “emerged following the 2008 economic collapse when many climate advocates were painted as wannabe energy taxers, and a sharp contrast was drawn between helping the economy and helping the climate.” While the issue is still not a “guaranteed win,” recent surveys from the University of Texas, Stanford, Yale and George Mason University, and Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, a consulting firm, contradict that assumption.

None of the mattered in Thursday night’s debate, however, which focused, as expected on the economy and healthcare. As The Hill’s Ben Geman observed, climate change was absent from the first debate.”

Another topic that didn’t come up was public lands. There have been a surprising number of calls from within the media recently calling on the candidates’ to discuss the issue. As an excellent 1,900-article by Greenwire’s Phil Taylor put it, Colorado, where the first debate took place, was “a logical place for the candidates to discuss the role of federal lands in providing energy, recreation and job opportunities at a time of stubbornly high unemployment.” Taylor pointed out that:

The debate at the University of Denver takes place in a swing state with more than 20 million acres of federal lands that offer everything from natural gas and oil shale to Rocky Mountain National Park, ski resorts, trout streams and prized hunting grounds…

But while Western lawmakers, conservationists and energy advocates said both candidates could benefit at the polls by touting their lands policies, few expect the issue to garner more than a brief mention.

Indeed, it did not, despite other pleas for attention, including a September 20 editorial in The Denver Post and a terrific op-ed in The New York Times by Timothy Egan, who once covered the Pacific Northwest for the paper.

Both Taylor and Egan flagged a proposal by Mitt Romney’s running mate, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, to sell off millions of acres of federal lands. Calling it a “radical plan to overhaul a century of sensible balance” between public and private ownership, Egan wrote that the first debate gave Lehrer, the moderator, “a chance to ask a rare question about something beyond the cackle of magpies inside the Beltway.”

Lehrer blew it, of course, but public lands did come up once during the debate when the candidates took it upon themselves to raise the intimately related subject of energy (obviously, a close cousin of climate change as well).

After Obama touted surging US oil and gas production, Romney countered that almost all of the increase was happening on private land. While both were correct, those and other statements they made about energy lacked nuance, providing none of the detail that Loren Steffy, the Houston Chronicle’s business columnist, had hoped for earlier in the day. One of Romney’s jabs, in particular, drew censure from the press.

The former Massachusetts governor said that the president had “provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world” and that half of the businesses that had received support had “gone out of business.” But fact checkers at CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor were quick to add context to the former allegation and to refute the latter.

First of all, the $90 billion was part of 2009’s $787 stimulus package, but not all of it has been spent and not all of it went to companies or individuals. As the Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson reported, it was “spread widely”:

About $3 billion went to carbon capture and storage projects needed to make coal “clean,” a goal Romney shares; about $11 billion went to energy efficiency; about $5 billion went to clean up old nuclear weapons sites; about $4 billion went to modernizing the electricity grid; and about $2 billion went to research and development, which Romney has also supported. DOE has a breakdown here.

Furthermore, Romney’s assertion that half the companies backed by the DOE’s loan program have gone out of business is, as the Times’s John Broder put it, “a gross overstatement”:

Of nearly three dozen recipients of loans under the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, only three are currently in bankruptcy, although several others are facing financial difficulties.

It’s too bad that the candidates weren’t more forthcoming about the details of their energy plans or their positions on climate change and public lands, and that Lehrer did nothing to draw them out. It’s not surprising, of course, but that does little to soothe the sense of disappointment that many in the media legitimately feel.

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