Paint it Green

Why it's been left to reporters to bring up environmental issues on the campaign trail

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, “In much of the nation, ‘cap and trade’ has become a dirty phrase this election season, and the political storm over global warming’s causes and solutions may determine several key races.”

If global warming is so pivotal in so many races, though, why did the Times decide to bury its story, which focused on the congressional race in Virginia’s fifth district, on page fourteen? If, as the article claimed, “Polls suggest several House races may turn on whether the incumbent voted for the ‘cap and trade’ bill in 2009,” isn’t that worthy of, say, front-page attention and analysis?

The answer should, of course, be yes. The problem is that the Times’s claim about what polls have suggested is highly dubious. The article refers to two pollsters. The first is the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund, which supports climate legislation and, on October 18, published the results of a survey of voters in twenty-three congressional districts. The poll asked respondents whether they would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate that had voted for a clean-energy bill, and most people said they would be more likely to do so. That says absolutely nothing about whether voters will cast their ballots based primarily on a candidate’s position on energy, however.

The Times’s second piece of evidence for its claim about the centrality of cap and trade to the mid-term election comes from Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster who surveyed thirty-one House races (from west, to Midwest, to east) for the conservative American Action Forum. Contrary to the NRDC Action Fund’s conclusions, he found that voters would be less likely to support a candidate who had voted for cap-and-trade legislation. Again, however, that says nothing about whether or not voters are basing their decision primarily on candidates’ positions on energy issues. In fact, they probably aren’t. The NRDC Action Fund survey didn’t even ask about other issues, and the American Action Forum survey found that there were other issues—like health care and the capital gains tax—that made more voters less likely to vote for a candidate. Moreover, both groups’ questions were quite leading, stressing the arguments for or against energy legislation that matched their own interests.

As heartening as it would be to see candidates and voters taking energy and environmental issues into serious consideration this election season, the evidence simply doesn’t support that narrative. The economy is eclipsing all other concerns, and where climate legislation has come up on the campaign trail, it has generally been given short shrift, serving only as one measure among many of a candidate’s position on “big government.” Where there has been coverage of the role energy and environmental issues have played in the election, it has usually been up to reporters to draw out candidates’ views.

Take this nut graph from a Greenwire story about three tight House races in Washington, where support for the environment is the “default” position among all candidates:

Washington residents, many of whom are hikers and bikers, spend a lot of time outdoors. And many voters care about the environment, according to a recent survey of registered voters in southwest Washington, commissioned by two environmental groups. Seventy-three percent said conservation is important when considering whether to support a political candidate.

But even in Washington, jobs and government spending, rather than the environment, have dominated the dialogue in the three close U.S. House races.

Or this lede from an article in The Providence Journal at the end of September:

During one public meeting after another in recent weeks, the four leading candidates for governor rarely strayed from talking about the economy, the state budget crisis and taxes. In their first debate Tuesday night devoted to the environment, they continued focusing on the economy, state budget and taxes.

They all said they favored recycling more, bringing more alternative energy sources online and continuing to protect Narragansett Bay. But they all kept falling back to the economy, where they did offer differing ways for turning things around.

That energy and environmental aren’t playing a central role in the midterm election does not mean those issues are absent or that they aren’t divisive, however. On October 22, The Portland Press Herald in Maine covered a “tense” exchange between the Democratic and Independent candidates for governor, which revolved around the former accusing the latter of being a lobbyist for big oil companies. A day later, The Columbus Dispatch noted that Democratic and Republican candidates for Ohio’s eighteenth district got “testy” about a number of issues, including climate change, during a debate. Unfortunately, the article was typical in that it pointed out the divergence of opinion without going into any detail about the candidates’ positions. This is especially unfortunate given that has taken issue with some a number of attack ads’ characterization of Democrat Zack Space’s vote for the 2009 cap-and-trade bill.

Those types of climate-related clashes, which make for good news pegs, have been rare, though. Reporters such as the St. Petersburg Times’s Craig Pittman deserve credit for making due without them. On Sunday, Pittman published a detailed account of the ways in which the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor of Florida diverge on various environmental issues without the assistance of a polarizing debate or contentious ad campaign.

Elsewhere, there have been a few good stories about candidates that are trying to outdo one another in their support for, or opposition to, environmental measures. On Tuesday, Greenwire ran an interesting piece about “anomalous” agreement between the Democratic and Republican candidates in Indiana’s eighth congressional district. “With coal and ethanol remaining central drivers of the state economy, and both candidates vying to blast broad climate change legislation more loudly, energy-minded Hoosiers could see little difference between a likely Sen. [Dan] Coats [the incumbent Republican] and a long-shot Sen. [Brad] Ellsworth,” the article reported, and then moved on to show how the candidates do, in fact, differ.

Likewise, The Santa Fe New Mexican carried an article on October 7 pointing out that:

Neither of New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Diane Denish and Republican Susana Martinez — are likely to put environmental issues quite as high on their agenda as Gov. Bill Richardson.

They’ve already indicated they might overturn or weaken some environmental rules Richardson’s administration has put in place, such as the pit rule for wastes from oil and gas production and the greenhouse gas emissions cap.

Like the Greenwire piece, however, the New Mexican article also moved on to highlight the fact that while both candidates oppose a state plan to cap and trade greenhouse gases, they do so for different reasons:

Denish believes climate change is occurring, but that any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be global and national, not state-by-state.

Martinez adheres to the climate change naysayer line, saying an emissions cap is anti-business, would increase taxes and isn’t based on sound science.

And while it is more common for two candidates to share an antipathy toward environmental legislation and regulation, there are places where it swings the other way, as well. As noted above, the state of Washington is one example. Another is Maryland, where The Capital in Annapolis recently reported that both candidates for governor have been “touting” their environmental records.

“Gov. Martin O’Malley [a Democrat] and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. [a Republican] have each spent four years in the Governor’s Mansion and tout their accomplishments in reducing pollution, boosting fisheries and promoting clean energy,” the article noted before going on to explain that, “Beyond their similar declared passion for the [Chesapeake] bay, the two men have divergent strategies for helping the bay.” [Update: The Baltimore Sun’s Tim Wheeler also has a nice, long story about Ehrlich and O’Malley’s positions on environmental issues.]

Indeed, earlier this month, The Capital made it clear that environmentalists have been “blasting” Ehrlich and “praising” O’Malley. Still, the situation is Maryland is similar to the one in Washington, and the paper made sure to stress high in its more recent story that:

It’s not clear, however, whether the environment will influence many voters on Election Day.

While most candidates and Marylanders profess an interest in the environment, it can be dwarfed by issues such as the economy and unemployment.

What is clear, on the other hand, is that (contrary to the Los Angeles Times claim about recent polls) reporters cannot leave it to candidates and voters to broach conversations about energy and environmental issues on the campaign trail. Journalists that have been proactive in this regard, pushing through stories without a clear news peg, should be commended.

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