Making climate change a presidential campaign story is harder than it looks – though a lot of journalists tried to do so at the National Press Club April 11. There was no contest. That was the story.

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Standins Grumet, Woolsey and Stern, representing candidates Obama, McCain, and Clinton respectively, at Press Club.

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) organized the forum – the Friday 5:30 p.m. happy hour an auspicious time at the Press Club, a kind of working TGIF with free hors d’oeuvres.

But the candidates didn’t bite, and their surrogates – prominent though they were – played nice and refused to argue.

GOP contender and Arizona Senator John McCain was represented by former Central Intelligence Agency Director Jason S. Grumet, director of the National Commission on Energy Policy. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was represented by Todd Stern, who negotiated for the Clinton White House at Kyoto.

The number of working reporters who showed up to cover the event was impressive. Free reservations for the 100-plus capacity room were “sold out.” Cable and broadcast networks stayed away, but there were at least four video cameras. C-SPAN broadcast most of the event live, after overcoming initial troubles with its feed. It posted a truncated video recording.

Those reporters who showed up to cover the exchange were primarily inside-the-beltway specialists: Science, Nature, Environmental Science & Technology, Congressional Quarterly, BNA, and E&E Publishing (known to many as “Greenwire“). E&E had just launched a new daily online publication – ClimateWire, covering the politics and business of climate change (see Yale Forum News Note, Feb. 2008) and in fact E&E TV posted a clearer video recording of the event, and even a transcript. ClimateWire reporter Dina Cappiello – an SEJ board member previously with the Houston Chronicle and briefly with Congressional Quarterly – was a principal organizer of the event, which was cosponsored by BNA, Chemical & Engineering News, the Environmental Law Institute, and National Geographic.

The big national media, perhaps no surprise, were from Japan, not the U.S.: Kyodo News and Sankei Shimbun.

Moderators Margaret Kriz of National Journal and Susan Feeney, senior editor for planning at NPR’s “All Things Considered,” tried to get the candidates’ stand-ins to differentiate their positions.

Getting It … and Getting it Done

Stern led off with a bold stroke, declaring for Clinton that “She gets it …. It’s going to require transformation of the energy basis of the U.S. economy.” Climate change would be “a fundamental organizing principle of her administration,” Stern said.

But Grumet, for Obama, came back with: “All three candidates… do get it. …What motivates me is the question of not only who gets it, but, in fact, who can get it done.”

And so it went. All three surrogates stressed their candidates’ belief in technology as a way out of the climate morass. Woolsey finally was reduced to saying: “Well, I agree with all of that, except with the proposition that Senator Obama believes it more than Senator McCain.” Woolsey even concluded the session by praising all three remaining candidates: “I think these are three very fine candidates. I think the country is lucky to have these three people running for President and may the best man or woman win.”

None of the surrogates had harsh words to say about coal – it was carbon that their candidates are against.

Certainly there are differences between the candidates, but not stark ones. For example: nuclear power. McCain might be seen as more pro-nuclear – although with the contenders trying to out-green each other, Woolsey projected McCain as being less anti-nuclear.

But this offering from Stern was typical: “Senator Clinton recognizes that 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear. You can’t simply just throw it overboard, but in terms of expanding it further, there are unresolved questions with respect to safety, cost, proliferation, waste, which until they get resolved further, I think she would have some hesitation about trying to charge forward.”

With McCain the first major Republican national office holder to actively push for a cap-and-trade system, it was also hard to find too much daylight between him and the Democrats on cap-and-trade – which in the end is likely to be the mainstay of any climate legislation the Democratically controlled 110th Congress might manage to pass before its election-year adjournment.

Stern, for one, suggested that there is a pretty big difference between McCain and both Democrats on this score – with the Democrats believing that far more than a cap-and-trade approach is needed.

The forum performances suggested that, compared to other issues, climate and energy policies don’t differentiate the candidates. If so, that may be at least one reason the candidates are not emphasizing climate and energy in their stump speeches. It may also help explain why the news media – at least the political reporters – are still giving those issues little attention so far in the campaign.


Joseph Davis is a freelance writer specializing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues and living in Bethesda, Md. He can be reached via e-mail.