MICHIGAN — Climate change is one of the great disappearing issues of the 2012 campaign. Though President Obama made climate central to his run for the White House four years ago, he, Mitt Romney, and down-ballot candidates have all generally avoided the subject this year. And as CJR and many others have noted, the campaign media—most strikingly, the debate moderators—have not forced the issue onto the agenda.
But an excruciatingly close U.S. congressional race in northern Michigan is proving to be something of an exception. Michigan’s First District features a re-match of the 2010 contest to fill the congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Bart Stupak, a Blue Dog Democrat. Republican Dan Benishek won then on a wave of Tea Party support, beating Gary McDowell, a former state legislator who is now hot on Benishek’s heels. Less than a week before Election Day, RealClearPolitics calls the race a toss-up. Public Policy Polling had McDowell leading by two percentage points in late September, with 14 percent of likely voters still undecided.
And the enormous, sparsely populated congressional district—it spans two time zones and more than 30 counties in Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas—has an especially sensitive relationship with the environment. Here, where life is defined by the Great Lakes, environmental issues are intimately connected to economic issues. So it was not surprising that the Oct. 15 debate between Benishek and McDowell included a rare (in 2012) political discussion of climate change.
Here’s how the exchange was relayed by reporter Brandon Hubbard in an article for the Petoskey News-Review, which also appeared in the Escanaba Daily Press (where it was mysteriously identified as an AP story):
Despite a tough reception from some in the audience, Benishek attempted to dismiss global warming by questioning whether the methodology had been tainted through politics.
“Frankly, I’m not sure how significant global warming is,” Benishek said. “I’m a scientist. I’ve studied medicine. I’ve written research papers, done peer review journals…. I don’t think we should be spending trillions of dollars not knowing what the long-term effects of the climate are. Thirty years ago they were talking about global cooling.”
McDowell said he is concerned about global warming and the dropping lake levels in lakes Michigan and Huron.
“The climate is definitely warm. We don’t get the ice cover we used to on the Great Lakes,” he said, noting the end result.
“I think pretty much every scientist who is not working for BP, the Koch brothers or Dr. Benishek agree we have to do something,” he said.
Benishek rebutted that people have to have a solid cause-and-effect before taking action on the lake levels issue.
This is disappointing stuff: candidates are finally talking about climate change, and one of the few reporters covering the story gives readers a back-and-forth, he-said/he-said account that seems straight out of 2002. (A video posted the next day by the League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, shows what the article calls the “tough reception” to Benishek’s comments: the crowd boos.)
I’m not going to run through the scientific consensus here on anthropogenic climate change: suffice it to say, it’s real. There is more we need to learn about how climate change is (or isn’t) related to some specific natural phenomena. And there are political debates to be had about the costs and benefits of various policy responses. But references to “global cooling” and the supposedly doubtful existence of climate change are nonsense that impedes, rather than advances, those debates. Reporters should say as much.
That’s a general rule, but it’s even truer in the race in Michigan’s First District. Beyond the importance of the environment in the region, Benishek touts his background in science and medicine—his ads and billboards urge voters to choose “Dr. Dan.” He also sits on the House committee on natural resources, and the subcommittee on energy and mineral resources. This begs for reporters to hold him to a higher standard of scientific literacy—a standard that wasn’t on display here. (I reached out to Hubbard to ask about his piece, but did not receive a response.)