In a <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />US election campaign that has seen the presidential candidates attack each other with great ferocity over issues as diverse as national security, retirement pensions and their attitudes to gay marriage, one issue has been prominent only by its absence.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
The environment was mentioned only in passing in the Presidential debates and has been raised on the campaign trail rarely. What explains the absence of an issue that was so prominent during the last election cycle? First is that, for Americans, the environment is way down their list of priorities. The attacks of 11 September 2001, the subsequent American involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the associated economic downturn have all pushed the environment away from the forefront of America’s collective mind.
This was confirmed by a Missing In Action poll organized by the Gallup organization for Earth Day, America’s national day of environmental awareness, which celebrated its 34th anniversary this year. It found that Americans placed the environment 11th out of 12 major issues in terms of importance to them.
Only immigration worried Americans less, although given that issue’s prominence in the presidential debates, it is likely that Gallup might find the environment placed dead last if it re-polled the American people today.
Economy vs environment
Moreover, the poll found that 44 percent of Americans believed that the economy should take precedence over the environment. This probably explains why the Kerry campaign, which should find the environment a natural issue to focus on, has only seemed to mention the issue in certain areas.
The Kerry campaign has made jobs a central issue in the campaign, and so does not want to set itself up for the accusation that its support for environmental policies would cost American workers their jobs.
This can be seen in the Kerry campaign’s schizophrenic approach to the global warming issue.
On Friday 19 August, the campaign issued a document aimed at keeping the West Virginian coal industry open. It included the words, “John Kerry and John Edwards believe that the Kyoto Protocol is not the answer.
The near-term emission reductions it would require of the United States are infeasible, while the long-term obligations imposed on all nations are too little to solve the problem.”
But on 24 August, The Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin, published an account of John Edwards’ visit to the town the day before. According to the paper, Edwards “lamented” America’s failure to join the Kyoto treaty. It seems the Kerry-Edwards campaign opposes Kyoto when coal miners’ votes are at stake but supports it in other areas. The context in which John Kerry raised the issue during the Presidential debates was that of foreign relations, not the environment.
The Bush administration’s stance on the issue is only marginally more coherent. The President has theoretically opposed American involvement in Kyoto since early 2001, but America continues to send vast armies of bureaucrats to the regular Kyoto conferences and the nation’s signature remains on the treaty.
There are other considerations. American Enterprise Institute scholar Stephen Hayward points out that, in America at least, environmental spending has followed Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money drives out good.
He points to a campaign around Earth Day this year that sought to outlaw disposable diapers as a case of the public looking askance at an environmental movement seemingly increasingly divorced from reality.
Barring a major ecological disaster or electricity black-Green lawns, but the focus is on the White House outs, it is unlikely the issue will force its way back on to the electoral agenda by 2 November. When Americans vote, it will be literally true that the environment is the last thing on their minds.