When Science Meets Politics: How Interest Groups Sway Environmental Decisions

Though it may seem logical that a compelling environmental or public health problem would be addressed merely by examining the science behind it, that isn’t the way such issues usually play out in the public arena. Instead, an external force called politics can be pervasive. Politics influence how environmental decisions are made in fundamental ways. This week’s readings focus on the many ways that politics influences the environment. This E360 article discusses the ties scientists have to the natural gas industry. Do you feel this was a solid piece of investigative journalism?  What questions does this NPR piece on EPA being a target raise? What differences in approach do you see in the way this NPR piece tackled Presidential politics vs. how it’s addressed in a print medium? What comments do you have on the way journalists cover this issue, based on this Columbia Journalism piece and this one? Why do you think climate change was rarely discussed in the Presidential election, as this New York Times piece discusses? Finally, could Hurricane Sandy have impacted the election, as described in this New York Times piece? I look forward to hearing your own questions, based on your reflections on the readings.


About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, CNNMoney.com, iVillage, Fortune.com, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom (http://www.makingupwithmom.com/) and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

18 Responses to “When Science Meets Politics: How Interest Groups Sway Environmental Decisions”

  1. Mostly because I was enrolled in Environ 320, I paid much more attention to the environment in regards to politics and the election this year than usual. It really surprised me how little the environment was discussed. It seemed that the Democratic party was benefiting from Republicans stubborn negative stances on gay rights, abortion issues, and immigration issues by simply not standing against those issues. My question is, since that seemed to work so well, particularly with the crucial youth vote, why didn’t any party make a stand on the environmental issues? There are plenty issues to be had, and as our visitor said a few weeks ago, 99% of scholars agree that climate change is inevitable, and happening already. Had either party taken a stand, wouldn’t that have created another major issue? Were there other issues that were greatly overlooked, because to me, it doesn’t seem like many were beside the environment.

    The environment can change quickly, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy, so what does politics do to take advantage/prepare for that? The democratic party and president Obama took full advantage of the storm in boosting their own stock in the election. Is that something that they’d already thought out in case of emergency, and how does the covering of stories like Bloomberg endorsing Romney remain non-partisan?

  2. Like Adam, before of this class, I pay much more attention to the environment now than I did before. I don’t just tune into environmental news more but I think about my impacts on the environment in my every day life- I recycle much more than I did before, I’ve lowered my consumption of red meat, and I buy organic and fair trade whenever possible! The reason why I’ve made these conscious decisions to help the environment is because, through this class, I’ve been educated on how important the environment really is- to our health, and to the future of our world. This is why it absolutely sickens me that the country’s foremost politicians avoid talking about this issue, and then the media go on and on claiming that the public are ignorant about climate change- well, it’s because the people that we as a nation look up to the most are too scared to talk about it! We are not educated enough on the subject! Sure, us college kids are privy to knowledge about our environment, but as a whole, the nation is pretty clueless, and therefore no one really takes any active steps to repair any damage to the environment because no one really knows the steps they should take. What it’s even more scary to imagine is that maybe people don’t even know there is a problem with out environment considering our political leaders don’t even address it when given a huge public platform! In my opinion, the media, and the country’s journalists, need to start reporting on climate change more frequently, and more convincingly. Children in schools need to be taught of the importance of the environment, but all that starts with the adults, and with the leaders- the people that children look up to the most. Get on it, Obama!

  3. The article that struck me the most from this week’s readings was the one from E360. It actually did not surprise me that so many members of an advisory board that endorsed a controversial technique used in hydraulic fracking had ties to the natural gas industry. Maybe I’m too cynical, but whenever a scientist or researcher endorses a controversial product or practice, I automatically assume that they have some underlying tie to the industry that produces it. It makes me wonder how this panel was even chosen and why this information wasn’t transparent in the first place.

    When journalists or other groups reveal that scientists have ties to industries that they are supposed to be independently/objectively reviewing, does that undermine their credibility? Do their reports and positions remain believable? Would publicly acknowledging these ties before researching or reviewing a practice/product help or hurt their cause?

  4. I really enjoyed the New York Times article by John Broder. Throughout this whole (what seems to be 2 years) campaign, the environment seemed to be pushed under the rug. Jobs, the economy, and health care were the three topics that these candidates wanted their agendas known about. I can understand why Romney didn’t want to bring up the environment, since he is a heavy supporter of the controversial ‘clean’ non-renewable energy sources, but why didn’t Obama jump on that more? I think Democrats usually have similar ideals to those who are truly passionate about the environment, so why didn’t the Democratic party really build on that?

    I think John’s article hit this issue in all the right spots. As someone he interviewed said, 2/3 of Americans thought the environment was an important issue in this election. It seems idiotic that given that statistic, neither candidate wanted to share any plans that they may have had for the environment. Did they even have plans? What does this mean now that Obama is back in office? Is the environment simply going to be put on the back burner until our nation no longer has economy, employment, or health care problems? I hope not, because I doubt I will live to see that day, even at the young age of 19. It is concerning and disheartening, and I am not even an environmentalist!

    The reasons that Broder gave all made sense to me, but I don’t think it excuses preseidential candidates from telling us, the people they represent, what they are going to do about our environment before we elect them.

  5. I thought this comment in the NPR piece was an interesting fact to tie things up “They include fewer infant deaths and higher real estate values, because people like to live in places with cleaner air.”

    While environmental regulations do hinder business, there’s no doubt they positively affect many/most other things. Should we be selling out our environment just to appease businesses?

    Additionally, I thought this topic was interesting but not at all surprising as legislators are biased/personally involved in all issues, not just the environment. So when the scientists sent out that letter stating the legislators were involved with tracking – that’s great – but what’s a good solution? There are always going to self-serving interests occurring in Washington that’s the name of the game. I think it’s worth thinking about questioning why journalists don’t make a bigger deal out of exposing these things? Fear of being labeled biased?

  6. In regards to the E360 article, I don’t think a paragraph long story can be a solid piece of investigative journalism. Fracking is such a deep and complicated issue and this article was only highlighting the requirements of monitoring it. I think for a reader who knew little of the issue this would be a gateway article into a further reading of fracking. The article on NPR about the GOP attacking the EPA raises some interesting questions. I think the main one I was interested in was why were environmental groups promoting their work by stating it creates jobs, rather that by saying it is helping the environment and public health? Is this an obvious ploy to get Republicans, who tend to focus on jobs creation being the most important thing in this economy right now, on their side? The other NPR article is more recent and is directly speaking of the presidential race. The approach is different in the two articles. The first was a short piece that went back and forth on who was saying what about who. I like the direct quotes and the both sides being presented. While I did not have time to listen to all of the 52 minute NPR show, I think it also did a good job presenting both sides of politics.
    Climate change was not discussed in the presidential election because neither wanted to lose any voters. Environmental issues mean a lot to some people, but the majority of America is focused on economy and social policies like gay marriage, women’s health, and healthcare. Both Governor Romney and President Obama knew that those were the issues that needed to be discussed to win over voters. I believe the environment has not made it into politics enough, and is taking a backseat to many of the issues that other’s are so passionate about. While I think it is impossible to say that one event won the race for Obama, Hurricane Sandy’s arrival did show him in a very positive way. I don’t know a single person who was Romney all the way, and then switched when they watched Obama handle Sandy.
    My question for the class after reading these articles is why are people in politics somewhat reluctant to stand for the environment in a public vocal way? Do you think it has something to do with Al Gore’s presidential race in 2000 because a loss because he was such an advocate for the environment? On the other hand, why does the GOP generally land on the opposite side of environmental issues?

  7. Embedded within this week’s topic of “Environmental Politics: How Companies and Public Interest Groups Can Manipulate Science,” is the idea that Journalists play an underlying role in choosing how to critique the politics of climate change. There are undoubtably multiple avenues which Journalists can take, but as this week’s featured news pieces demonstrate critiquing politics–the current greatest potential organization that could either combat or ignore issues of climate change–is the most common route.

    In NPR’s audio piece, “White House Study Explains Why GOP Targets EPA,” reporter Elizabeth Shogren presents the political ideology Professor Robert Stavins in challenge to the views of both Republican and Democratic views of climate change. Professor Stavins argues that “those who support more environmental regulation have promoted it as job creation, rather than as environmental protection. And those who are opposed to it, have featured it as job killing.” Stavins continue arguing that In fact it is neither of these thoughts that show the true issue at hand–environmental regulation as public health gain.

    In the piece “Both Romney and Obama Avoid Talk of Climate Change,” author John M. Broder offers the critique of Andrew Steer as guide to his argument that neither–then–presidential candidates addressed issues of climate change. By presenting the argument of Steer about the out of touch political discourse of the US, Broder provides yet another critique of the climate issue via a challenge to US politics.

    Though NPR’s and Broder’s pieces offer different specifics and opinions, both present overarching challenges to political thoughts about climate change. It appears that it’s not just politics that influences how environmental decisions are made, but also the discourses and strategies of those politics. Journalists play an important role in challenging both.

  8. John Broder from the New York Times here. I enjoyed this post and the thoughtful comments below and wanted to elaborate a bit on my article that several commenters mentioned. The piece, which ran 10 days before the election – and just a few days before Sandy hit the East Coast – was part of a series this summer and fall called The Agenda, which looked at issues that were not being fully discussed in the campaign, including terrorism, civil liberties, the Middle East and health care costs. In my article, I tried to explain why both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama shied away from bringing up climate change, even after a series of dramatic climate-related events including floods, wildfiles, sea ice melt and a historic drought. The long and short answer is that any set of policies to seriously address climate change would involve at least temporarily higher energy costs and would eliminate jobs in some sectors of the economy and parts of the country that both candidates were trying to appeal to. Any such change in the nation’s energy economy also provokes a bitter and well-funded backlash from the oil, gas and coal industries. At his first post-election presss conference, Mr. Obama was asked about his second-term intentions on climate change policy and whether he would consider a tax on carbon emissions. He essentially ducked the question, saying the American people elected him to deal first with jobs and the economy. That comment was ironic for two reasons: he did not present a stark contrast on climate change in the campaign, thus could not claim a mandate for dealing with it; and throughout his first term he said this was a “false choice” and that America could deal with its environmental and economic challenges at the same time. Check out this blog post on the president’s remarks: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/obama-on-climate-policy-not-just-now-thanks/

    And enjoy class!

    John B.

  9. In response to John:
    Thank you for the article and the comment! I really enjoyed reading it and found it very informative, and same with the blog post. After reading these, however, I am still curious about why nobody discusses the long term benefits of using cleaner energy – both economic and health. There is still this huge focus on the “now” even though this seems to be the initial reasoning for our economic crisis, and many other problems that we are facing in society. As much as I appreciate your article, it seems as though you are siding with those who are in favor of focusing on providing current jobs and keeping money flow going the way it is. There is barely any coverage on what Obama and Romney could have talked about in regards to the environment. Although I understand the point of the article was to show why they stayed away from the topic during the election, people reading this article could be persuaded by it and start to side with their reasoning. However, I feel that if there was information about how the public could greatly benefit from focus on the environment, it could have been a more well rounded article, attracting people from both sides.

    I think that the NPR article “White House Study Explains Why GOP Targets EPA” did a good job of providing a very central argument, by quoting professionals in the economy and also those in the public health sector, and therefore showing both sides of the argument from a professional standpoint.

    Overall, the fact that concern on the environment was neglected during this past election is very disappointing. Clearly there is confusion and contradicting views on the topic, and who else is to clear up the debate if not for the President himself. So, John, once again I appreciate the article and the insight as to why they would both avoid the subject, but it is in no way justified. The president is meant to face America’s problems, not dodge them.

  10. I find it somewhat scary, but not surprising, that politics have a tendency to influence environmental decisions. I think these decisions can definitely be swayed when those who make them have ties with certain industries or companies. When money is involved, we can’t always trust the decisions that are being made. I think it’s important to find out the truth behind issues before one can back or support it.

    Politicians tend to try and avoid taking a stance on some controversial topics, especially during an election, in order to not upset potential voters. I was disappointed that climate change was not really discussed in this past election. Why do you think the moderators in the debates failed to bring up the topic of climate change? What influence will politics have on the future of climate change? How can journalists accurately represent the truth behind issues to allow the public to see when politicians are having an influence over environmental decisions?

  11. I think these articles do a good job of showing the implications of politicians prioritizing business matters over environmental matters. It seems that politicians are swayed by the opportunity to make money off environmental and health issues. We would love to believe that our government representatives have a genuine care for our health, yet we hear of stories where their ulterior motive is to make a profit. For example, in the NPR story, we see that the government feels EPA rules are too costly and too strict, because they are limiting job opportunities. They turn health issues into business issues by making these topics about employment rather than the true goal–serving our good health. Additionally, thinking of cost as a negative thing implies that they think the money spent is being lost, instead of looking at it as an investment towards future health payoffs.
    Journalists in these articles reveal the stickiness of ties between government and business industries. Do you think that the government has the genuine interest of the people at hand, or is more concerned with making money from the companies that address public health and environment issues? If an article disclosed that government was depriving you of a health care need that you wanted, because funding the associated industry was too expensive, how would you feel? It is not the journalist who we should be angry with for handling health care and environment issues this way, because they are just informing the public of what the government and industries have decided to do. This is the situation for many people without access to a health care plan. Furthermore, the question is not so hypothetical. I suspect many people are angry at the government for putting their priorities in this wacky order. Journalists should keep reporting this scandalous behavior, because the public has a right to know it. Do you agree?

  12. Is the fact that neither candidate mentioned climate change a good thing?

    Although I’m young, this is the first presidential election where there hasn’t been a long, drawn out debate about climate change. Is this all bad? I would like to think that because it wasn’t hotly debate was because we’ve established it as fact! Climate change is real and it will affect our lives in the future.

    What bothered me most about the environment coverage was the lack of conversation about alternative energy. Yes, the Alaskan pipeline will always be a crowd favorite topic, but why haven’t we focused on the future and alternate sources? While we can continue drilling for many more years, the supply is not by any means endless. Why aren’t we talking about wind and solar power? Where is the excitement about labs finding even more ways to make new, clean energies? We are one of the most powerful countries in the world with an immense population to support – if we don’t get excited about alternative energies, why should anyone else?

  13. I don’t think it’s very surprising that the environment wasn’t heavily (if at all) discussed in the recent election. The economy was obviously the hot topic, and even discussions on foreign policy, immigration, and social issues somehow were routed back to the economy time and time again. So, to me, it makes sense that the only time the environment was discussed was in terms of jobs and stimulating the economy. Due to the polarization of the parties in the most recent election, it seems like there were other issues that were more hotly contested. It’s been largely discussed that the campaigns and debates became boxing matches with the candidates taking as many shots at each other as possible. Perhaps it just comes down to the fact that the environment didn’t provide a substantial enough target for either candidate to use, in terms of hurting the opponent.

    This is problematic, however, not only because it’s an important issue, but Americans care about it. It makes sense, that even if it isn’t a place to hurt the other candidate, perhaps it could still provide votes. So it’s confusing, to me, why the environment couldn’t be a vehicle to gaining votes for either candidate.

    I found myself wondering why climate change did not come up more during hurricane sandy. In the last, crucial days of the election climate change seems like it could be a largely untapped means of gaining votes in the midst of a terrible storm. When environmental issues become wrapped up in politics, how can the American public demand those environmental issues be brought to attention?

  14. I found the E360 article the most eye-opening by far. The only problem was that it was a paragraph long, which leads me to believe that there is probably a lot of information that was passed over. SO in that respect I don’t think it can really be regarded as investigatory journalism. Regardless of the length it definitely got me thinking about scientists who are being trusted with public health concerns. The fact that they assess their own best interests first is just scary. It makes you think of the deeper implications of how many policy makers (past, present and future) have made public decisions based simply of their own incentives — especially when they have been trusted with protecting and serving the public.

    In the second debate it seemed that questions were being asked that were intended to lead the candidates towards the environment — but every time they got turned around to the economy.

    Thanks to John for writing an eye=opening article that took a fair stance on the issue — it makes me wish that more was done like this around the time of the debates to let the public know that neither candidate was addressing the issue; rather than people firing from both sides about how wrong the other was.

  15. I too was very disappointed that climate change was not a major topic in this election, especially because it is something that I consider strongly when forming my opinions about different candidates. I agree that this topic was left out of the discussion to avoid alienating voters, but as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, the climate may well define the next presidency. I was happy to see that, around the time of the election, there were a lot of articles written about this climate change silence. My question is, how much public demand do you think it would have taken for the candidates to speak seriously on this issue? How can journalism play a role in coercing politicians to talk about uncomfortable or controversial issues, like climate change? Do you think that journalism pieces can be used as a catalyst to bring issues to the forefront of a campaign and create action or do you think that they only serve to inform on the happenings of the election? What could have ended the silence on this issue?

  16. Like many others said, I really started paying to environmental issues because of this class. This doesn’t mean that I completely understand what’s going on or always look out for environmental news. But what I did realize after reading all of these articles is that there so many things define “environmental issues.” For journalists, politicians, and environmental organizations to address all of them is impossible. Furthermore, there are other issues that the nation faces, such as unemployment and an unstable economy, that require attention too. So my question is how can journalists effectively communicate the numerous environmental issues? What are some things politicians and organizations can do to aid that process?

  17. Considering both sides of the political debate during this election worked hard to avoid the subject of the environment, it is clear to see that politics likes to avoid the polarizing issue of climate change. I’m not quite sure why politics finds the need to avoid environmental issues other than the fact that they are “controversial.” Some think that the issues may be related to religious or other personal issues. Individual responsibility has a lot to do with why people feel defensive of the whole issue. But how do journalists portray environmental issues effectively with the support of science? And how do they hold politics and the public accountable for their (individual) actions without seeming too preachy?

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