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.)

The other coverage of the debate came from Interlochen Public Radio, a listener-supported service in the region. (Interlochen and the Petoskey paper were debate co-sponsors, and the debate was moderated by Hubbard and Interlochen’s Linda Stephan.) Interlochen admirably posted audio of the hour-long debate on its website, so listeners can access the unfiltered conversation. A written account accompanying the audio summarizes a few key exchanges, but lets the candidates claims go unchecked, except by the opponent:

“Climate is definitely warming,” responded Democrat Gary McDowell. He said it’s leading to lower lake levels. “It’s causing more evaporation on the Great Lakes. And we don’t get the ice cover we used to have so we get more evaporation year round.”

But Republican Dan Benishek said he’s not convinced the planet is warming, nor that lake levels can be attributed to global climate change. He said lower lake levels on lakes Michigan and Huron may be linked to dredging in the basin below Lake Huron at Lake St. Clair.

“Is it global warming? I don’t know. The Lake Superior levels aren’t significantly changed. The Lake Erie levels are actually higher.”

Linda Stephan told me that Interlochen’s debate write-up wasn’t meant to be a
comprehensive story, but rather promotional text designed “to encourage web users to actually listen to the debate.” Stephan added that she works “within the context of a broader national network that has for years, and also within the context of the current political season, been clear that the accepted scientific theory is a global warming with human causes.” That’s laudable—but a little more clarity here would have been welcome.

As for reporting on the debate itself, that was about it. The statewide site MLive noted a few days later that Benishek had “taken heat” for his climate change answer—a reference to a new anti-Benishek billboard from the League of Conservation Voters, a McDowell supporter—but it didn’t add much to the story. (Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is a substantial source of support for Benishek, a fact that hasn’t figured prominently in campaign coverage.) But if the quantity of coverage was underwhelming, it was still better than what followed two subsequent candidate forums elsewhere in the district—other than accounts on the campaigns’ own websites, I couldn’t find any mention of those in the media. In one of the country’s tightest races for federal office, the void in reporting is startling.

It’s important to note, though, that the void hasn’t been total—Stephan did deliver a follow-up broadcast a week after the debate that addressed both climate change and other environmental issues, and it was stronger stuff.

The Oct. 23 segment—which also aired on the statewide Michigan Radio and on “The Environment Report,” a public radio initiative that extends to additional stations—quotes Benishek’s climate denial from the debate, then follows up with this:

A bi-national report earlier this year listed uncertainties for Great Lakes water levels due to climate change, including reduced ice cover in winter and more evaporation year-round. It also says local rainfall may mitigate those effects in lakes Michigan and Huron.

Benishek thinks the bigger concern is that dredging near the southern end of Lake Huron in the middle of last century has lead to water losses for both lakes.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman in Detroit says there have also been times of record high water levels since that last dredging.

In other words: not only is global warming very real, it’s probably related to falling lake levels. And Benishek’s probably full of it.

The radio broadcast also delves into environmental issues such as Benishek’s record on clean water laws and mercury emissions, which have been the subject of regular McDowell attacks and sometimes dizzying he-said/he-said coverage. (From the Petoskey News-Review debate story: “‘The things Gary just said about me aren’t true,’ Benishek said.” And from an earlier Escanaba Daily Press article: “Benishek says that’s not true.”) Stephan’s segment runs through the same back-and-forth, but then offers some clarification:

Benishek did vote to amend clean water laws—to restrict federal regulators from imposing new standards unless the states approve. Likewise he did vote to repeal emissions standards for cement manufacturers. But Benishek says these were not votes cast to allow more pollution, but to end what he calls “job-killing” federal regulations. Thoughtful decisions, he says, that shouldn’t be reduced to sound bites.

Unfortunately, the follow-up broadcast didn’t air until more than a week after the debate. And there’s some room for improvement—such as more forceful writing and, for online visitors, links the Great Lakes report and the bills in question. But there was some solid, reporting-based factchecking here, of a type that’s too often been missing in coverage in the First District.

In the closing days of the campaign, reporters here should strive to offer more of that, and to steer clear of the he-said/he-said trap, on environmental issues and beyond. That kind of coverage mirrors the problematic way Benishek dismissed climate change: a shoulder-shrugging way of asking, “Who knows?”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.