Last Saturday, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most definitive report ever on global warming -- saying that "warming of the climate is unequivocal." At the same time, three Democratic presidential candidates debated global warming and energy policy on stage in Los Angeles. The debate received almost no media coverage. No television station broadcast the event live, only an environmental web site did. Even the hometown newspaper, the L.A. Times, failed to place news of the debate on the front page, instead burying a story well into the first section.
The lack of coverage continues a media tradition of ignoring the significance of climate change to the next president of the United States: Tim Russert, on Meet the Press, has interviewed countless presidential candidates this season and has yet to ask any of them a single question about climate change. Read more here. In two presidential debates he hasn't once raised what many regard as the issue of our generation to a group that includes our next president, who will face an issue so vast that to address it will require completely revamping our economic and energy future.
Why is the press largely ignoring how presidential candidates would confront the most important environmental issue the world has ever faced? And why aren't voters demanding that candidates address the issue? Why isn't it headline news when Fred Thompson mocks the unequivocal scientific consensus by saying that perhaps Mars is inhabited by "alien SUV-driving industrialists" since hemispheric dust storms appear to be contributing to ice shrinkage on the red planet? (see here for an explanation of Mars and climate change; see here for Thompson's opportunistic distortion of the issue). And why aren't voters and the media demanding more of Mitt Romney than his statement that he believes the U.S. shouldn't act until China does? Is this presidential leadership? Shouldn't the U.S. have policies of engagement toward China on carbon emissions reductions? Under a Romney presidency would we face four or eight more years of inaction, inaction that means we'll almost certainly face environmental catastrophe?
Hilary Clinton's campaign recently faced intense criticism over news that it planted questions among the audience in a town forum. Yet the coverage largely neglected the fact that one of the planted questions was about how Clinton would attack global warming. Why can't the campaign count on voters to raise such an important question?
Somehow, the dire news about climate change that confronts us almost daily has yet to translate among the media and the public into a sense of urgency that the U.S. must act, and act soon. Without a sense of urgency, the next president of the United States will lack a mandate to impose the kind of change we must institute if we're to successfully slow the looming environmental catastrophe. The press has a vital role to play in this process. It starts with showing up to events like the Los Angeles climate debate, but it also must include asking hard questions of our would-be leaders, questions that force them to engage with the environmental challenges that lie ahead.