Elizabeth Shogren of the Los Angeles Times described an elevator ride in which two U.S. senators expressed the frustrations they faced in pushing for environmental reform.
“No one cares. Nobody pays attention to us,” Shogren recalled both senators saying.
Echoing this quotation, Shogren, along with Eric Pianin of the Washington Post, addressed about 60 people Thursday afternoon at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, to offer “Perspectives from the Media” as part of the lecture series “Politics and Environment in the 2004 Election Year.” In addition to addressing the upcoming presidential election, Pianin described the difficulty of environmental reporting.
“The environment ranks low on the totem pole of political concerns,” he said.
Shogren supported this opinion by referencing a poll in which 75 percent of polled Democrats and Republicans said they wanted stronger environmental protection, but only three percent considered it the most important political concern in the upcoming presidential election.
Despite the present lack of emphasis voters place on the environment, the two reporters said environmental issues could determine the 2004 election, as many of the swing states face pressing environmental concerns. Drilling for natural gas in New Mexico, for example, has drawn the attention of an unlikely coalition of liberal environmental activists, as well as conservative game hunters to stop President George W. Bush ’68 from polluting their state.
But Shogren said environmental concerns have failed to catch on with U.S. voters due to their complexity: it takes five minutes to detail the environmental hazards of coal-fired power plants whereas voters can better understand economic and job-related issues. This trend may change in the future when environmental groups begin to buy air time on Senator John Kerry’s ’66 political advertisements.
Pianin described the first year of Bush’s administration as a “public relations disaster,” citing the secrecy with which Bush dealt with reporters. Bush’s staff often refused to talk to the press or provide relevant information in interviews. This, combined with what Pianin described as Bush’s dismal environmental record, which has included his rejection of the Kyoto Accord, created an opportunity for environmental groups to target Bush’s environmental policies.
But Pianin also addressed the way that the change in Kerry’s political strategy on the environment has had hurt environmental groups’ efforts to target the Republican Party in the upcoming election. Whereas Kerry initially made a link between the war in Iraq and U.S. dependence on Mideast oil in his ads, his focus has recently shifted to the unusually high gas prices in the United States under the Bush Administration. This, combined with an exaggeration of the environmental problems in this country on the part of environmental groups, has weakened the link between the war in Iraq and U.S. reliance on oil.
“In a sense, it created a vacuum that the environmentalists rushed to fill and point out what they saw as environmental conspiracies,” Pianin said.
Even so, after the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies, media pressure shifted from Bush’s environmental record to national security and the present war on terrorism, decreasing the effectiveness of environmental groups, Pianin said.
Heather Kaplan MEM ’04, a student coordinator of the series, noted the importance of representing a diversity of political backgrounds in addressing the environment.
“Having people speak that are from both Republican and Democratic perspectives indicates that the environment shouldn’t be such a partisan issue,” Kaplan said.
The “Politics and Environment in the 2004” series will host former Vice President Al Gore on April 13.