Weighing the Environmental Vote

From Iowa to New Hampshire, more enthusiasm than action

On New Year’s Eve, three days before the Iowa caucuses began, The Des Moines Register published a campaign story under the headline, “Environmental issues get unprecedented focus.” While this is undoubtedly true, not only in Iowa, but also nationwide, the word “unprecedented” may leave readers with an overly complacent perception of the impact of global warming and energy issues on the presidential election.

Compare the Register’s headline to one that ran Sunday in The Hartford Courant, in preparation for Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary: “Climate change catches on, slowly, as issue.” While the Register’s headline is not inaccurate (and environmental issues’ newfound prominence this campaign season is something to applaud), the Courant’s tempered construction is probably more instructive.

The Register’s article is, in fact, more nuanced and balanced than the headline suggests, but writer Perry Beeman waits until the bottom half to introduce a more qualified perspective. He begins by quoting the director of the League of Conservation Voters’ global warming project, Navin Nayak, who tells him that, “Global warming and energy have become a top-tier issue.” It’s hard to hang too much on that opinion, though, coming as it does from an advocacy group, and Nayak doesn’t offer any hard evidence other than a number of in-state television and radio ads (all from Democrats) touching on climate. Beeman might have done better leading with a more neutral candidate, such as Dianne Bystrom, whom he quotes later in the piece. Bystrom, who directs the Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, is clearly pleased by the visibility of green issues in this campaign, but less convinced of their ultimate impact. Beeman paraphrases her opinion: “The environment has gone from an off-the-radar issue in past presidential races to a blip on the screen, but it’s still not big enough to influence how people vote.”

As candidates move from Iowa to New Hampshire and beyond, this point may become more conspicuous in the press. The article in The Hartford Courant, featuring the more cautious headline about climate catching on slowly as an issue, focuses on national trends, rather than the particulars of New Hampshire, but the message comes through just the same. “Until recently, the problem of climate change has weighed lightly on the American public; the issue seems more distant than the war in Iraq, health care or the economy,” writes David Funkhouser. He cites dispiriting examples of continued political and public disinterest, including Fred Thompson’s recent quip about warming trends on Mars. Also noted in Funkhouser’s piece is a recent survey by the League of Conservation Voters which found that, of the 2,275 questions asked of presidential candidates in 2007 by five major television news hosts, only three mentioned global warming. This trend was reflected in the presidential debate in New Hampshire on Saturday night.

During the three-hour event, the moderator, ABC’s Charlie Gibson, asked only one question about climate change (although the related subject of energy policy came up slightly more often). Furthermore, most national and regional news outlets that covered the debate focused on Barack Obama and John Edwards teaming up to peg Hillary Clinton as a status-quo candidate. Among mainstream publications, only The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin, on his Dot Earth blog, analyzed the event from the climate perspective. He provides a valuable insight on what has happened since candidates left the grain belt last week: “It’s fascinating to watch how geography shapes the talking points at such events. With Iowa a memory, there was not a word mentioned about corn-based ethanol. The Republicans weren’t asked any direct questions on climate, which remains a low-priority issue for television news pundits.”

Given that reality, environmentally-minded voters may be content to simply have global warming on the campaign menu this year, even if it is not the plat du jour. The lead story in the The New York Times’s Week in Review on Sunday discussed whether or not the Iowa caucuses were a “threshold moment” for social issues such as climate change, abortion, race, and homosexuality. Probably not, concludes the reporter, Kirk Johnson, although it may have been a bellwether for things to come. “Politics might be stuck in the slow lane,” he writes, “but science, capitalism and American culture and society are decidedly not, and all are making creative end runs around the gridlock.”

Ultimately, the headlines from the The Des Moines Register and The Hartford Courant - optimistic and cautious, respectively - are both legitimate. The articles themselves came to more or less the same conclusions; the editors writing the headlines simply had to choose between one of two equally valid perspectives: glass half full or half empty. Somehow, given the current state of American politics regarding climate change, that latter still seems more appropriate; hopefully, that will change.

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