11/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Environment Slips As Key Factor In Virginia Presidential Vote

The presidential race in Virginia is heating up--so is the environment. In the same week that an autumn heat wave brought 80º days to the Commonwealth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report that Arctic temperatures climbed 9º Fahrenheit above normal this fall, Greenland's ice melted at a record rate, and the thawing permafrost threatens to release massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. But where does the environment or the candidates' environmental policies rank for many Virginia voters? Not very high.

A year ago, a Washington Post poll showed the environment ranked ninth of 20 major issues among Virginia voters, with urban voters more likely to worry about the environment than rural peers. Ninth place sounds respectable, except that placement meant only three percent of voters considered the environment their top or second concern. Seven times that number worried most about transportation, and the economy was the top issue for another 13 percent of Virginians.

Chances are, the environment has lost ground since then. A national Gallup poll this past September revealed zero percent of voters with a preference for McCain and only two percent with a preference for Obama based that preference on their candidate's environmentalism.

Ironically, in Virginia, where voters aren't distinguishing the candidates' primarily via the environment, their environmental differences could be magnified more than in other states. Virginia prohibited mining for uranium in 1982. Yet one potential miner tried to end that ban since an estimated 55,000 tons of the stuff sit beneath his farm in south-central Virginia, one of the largest deposits in the East. An expanded nuclear industry would probably want that ore. Virginia shares the Assateague National Seashore with Maryland, and tourism to its beaches generates much income. Rising seas or pollution from offshore drilling could endanger both. The state produces around 30 million tons of coal annually. Carbon sequestration or cap-and-trade could influence that number dramatically.

Talking to voters near Charlottesville, Virginia, nonetheless suggests four factors make the environment less decisive. First, some people just never cared that much about it, or if they do, it is a long-term problem, liable to be displaced by a more acute crisis. One "less formally educated 'environmentalist'" explains, "In general, I feel the environment is the most important issue. It's just that with both Iraq and the economy, I feel like they are immediate crisis issues that would affect the environment more than other votes or conduct about the environment qua environment."

A related factor is that voters in Virginia don't hear much from the candidates about the environment. Laura Kolar, who studies environmental history at the University of Virginia, says, "I don't know a lot about their environmental platforms because I have been so focused on foreign policy and the economy, like the rest of the country I suppose. I haven't seen it come up at all!"

People who do feel informed about the candidates' environmental platforms tend to inform themselves. For instance, environmental consultant Steve Keach belongs to a slew of environmental organizations and notes, "The League of Conservation Voters scores Obama a lot higher, based on his and McCain's Senate voting records on environmental issues" like energy efficiency and renewable energy, conservation, offshore drilling, and greenhouse gas emissions. Others glean information from environmental websites, specialty newsletters, or, which posts the candidates' answers to 14 science questions selected by the National Academy of Sciences and other professional groups.

Turning to the candidates themselves, meanwhile, suggests the third reason Virginians don't feel compelled to vote the environment: the differences seem small and the policies vague. One young voter complains about the lack of detail and thorough thought. "I know Obama wants to create green collar jobs, but how does he plan to do that? I don't mean to say that I love the McCain platform--at all. I can't get over how vague it is. Credential-wise, neither one has convinced me that they have something outstanding."

Such tepidness introduces the fourth factor, more prevalent among committed environmentalists. Neither candidate's policies go far enough, so at best, you vote the lesser of two evils. Obama appears more likely to provide environmental leadership. However, that leadership, in one line of thinking, needs to catalyze a massive effort, comparable to the Civilian Conservation Corps or World War II, to revolutionize the way we work, play, and produce and consume energy.

If you watched the final debate, you probably experienced these four factors. McCain's facial expressions spurred lots of analysis. His energy plan didn't. You probably walked away thinking, McCain wants more nuclear power than Obama, and Obama might spend a little more on renewable energy than McCain. Big deal. The candidates' websites both talk about carbon cap-and-trade, clean coal, and rebates for hybrids. So what's--and where's--the beef?

The beef, as usual, is a devil within even scant details. McCain would eventually auction allowances for a carbon-trading scheme; Obama would do it from the outset. The market implications could be huge. Obama equates carbon capture and sequestration with clean coal. McCain doesn't get that specific, which suggests his version of clean coal may look more like the power industry's: remove other pollutants like mercury and sulfur dioxide to call it clean, but don't worry about greenhouse gases per se. McCain would make federal buildings more energy efficient and ask economic competition to change the rest. Obama would probably mandate standards in his attempt to reduce electricity demand by 15% in 2020 through increasing efficiency. Obama would look into drilling offshore, McCain would do it and, with Palin, might consider boring into the increasingly balmy Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Virginia voters, like everyone else, have lots to ponder. The environment may not be their current priority, or pollsters may be asking the question the wrong way. As Kolar says, "every time an election rolls around, the true colors and priorities of the majority of Americans show: the economy and security." Yet isn't that precisely what a healthy environment provides?