The day after the New Hampshire primary, the CEO of Clean Air-Cool Planet, an environmental group, contributed an op-ed to London’s Daily Telegraph in which he asserted that, “The press hasn’t reported on it but the real story from last night’s election may be how important global warming was for the voters of New Hampshire…”
As appealing as the claim may be, it’s hard to believe - not only because it’s not born out in exit polls and other reporting, but also because the press has clearly taken a new, if tentative, interest in how climate and energy issues are affecting voters. Take the editorial published by The Detroit Free Press on Sunday outlining the candidates’ various positions on science and environmental issues. It was nothing ambitious - at least a dozen other outlets have published such breakdowns, and the Freep’s was shorter than most. Nevertheless, the mere presence of such an editorial in the Motown paper - which supports a carbon tax, but loves its auto industry and opposes strict fuel economy standards - says something about the nascent import of global warming, and science generally, to this presidential election. And the paper’s climate concern raises an even more intriguing question about whether the press has done due diligence with regard to global warming and the campaign.
The Free Press didn’t break any news about candidates’ opinions on these issues. But since Grist’s early work cataloging this information, which included interviews with almost every candidate, even the most determined of recent efforts (such as this one from Science) failed to gain access to the hopefuls themselves. Most publications have relied on the candidates’ official Web sites, campaign lackeys, and former colleagues for material. Recently, however, as if fed up with going it alone, some members of the press have begun to team up with other professionals-politicians, scientists, academics, and captains of industry-who also think this campaign needs a more specific and extensive discourse on science and environmental issues. (It should be noted, however, that most of the journalists who have signed on are top editors, rather than beat reporters covering the campaign, and their participation comes more from a genuine belief that these issues are vital to the nation’s future, than from the journalistic pursuit of new intel.)
“Candidates are awfully careful in that kind of situation,” Science’s editor, Donald Kennedy said, referring to news outlets’ attempts to profile candidates’ positions on science. “I think there are good reasons for wanting to have it in debate format, like pressure from other candidates and the presence of a moderator. Hopefully, that would get candidates to come forward with some views that they might otherwise be reluctant to express.”
The levee of frustration broke, so to speak, in early December, when eleven Nobel laureates, two dozen other distinguished scientists, the leaders of a number of pre-eminent scientific organizations and universities, business leaders, writers, and elected officials from both major parties released a petition demanding a presidential debate devoted to science. Underpinning the call is the argument that the U.S. is falling behind in the global economy by not investing more in scientific research and innovation. Among the early signatories were Science’s Kennedy and Scientific American editor John Rennie, who is also on the group’s steering committee. Since then, a number of other journalists have attached their names, including the editors of Nature, The New Republic, The Scientist, and Skeptical Inquirer, and Ira Flatow, from NPR’s Science Friday. The number of signatures has now grown to 6,223, according to a “partial” list on the group’s Web site, www.sciencedebate2008.com.
Despite the inclusion of such illustrious science journalists, however, the press has hardly covered the petition in the news pages. Instead, it has been left to some of the signatories to promote the cause on opinion pages. Varying renditions of the argument for a science debate have appeared in the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, New Scientist, and Salon. For the most part, reporters have avoided this story. Lawrence Krauss, an astrophysicist and Case Western University and Shawn Lawrence Otto, a screenwriter, (both steering committee members) have written most of the op-eds.