From my latest piece at the Columbia Journalism Review:
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. ...
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.
But wait! Benishek's denial of climate change at the debate is covered by reporters in a he said/he said manner, as if the reality of global warming were ... up for debate. Despite the fact that environmental issues are fairly unique in politics, in that they emerge from verifiable, observable data, the newspaper and public radio reporters covering the debate left it to Benishek's opponent to counter his dubious claims. This gives the impression that climate change is only a matter of opinion. Reporters have dangerously ceded ground here.
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 (Benishek's) 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.
Incidentally, Benishek's claim that he's "not so sure" about the significance of global warming met with boos from the audience. When he followed up by citing his background as a scientist, the audience laughed.