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US election 2004

September 24, 2004 By Geoff Brumfiel This article courtesy of Nature News.

Kerry blasts Bush over stem cells; Bush slams Kerry on his plans for nuclear waste. The presidential race is set to be a fierce one, and Nature's US reporters will be watching events unfold. Check here for the latest twists and turns in the campaigns, bro

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Day 3: The next big villain

Erika Check

Americans love the little guy, and they hate "big business". Just look at "big tobacco", which was forced to pay out a huge settlement in 2000 for deceiving American consumers about the health risks of smoking. This year a new corporate villain has emerged: "big pharma".

You could see big pharma in action last week, at hearings of the Food and Drug Administration and at Congress, where the pharmaceutical industries were accused of distorting data on the safety and efficacy of antidepressants in children. And you can watch it in the debate over drug pricing, as states and the FDA battle over whether Americans should be allowed to buy cheaper drugs in Canada.

New polls conducted this year show that these issues are fueling the public's dislike of the industry. Only 44% of Americans think that pharmaceutical companies serve their customers well. That's down from 79% in 1997: the largest drop out of all the 15 industries surveyed in the poll. The only industries that score lower now are the traditional whipping boys of corporate America, including health insurance, oil and tobacco. Ouch. John Hayes, an executive with Eli Lilly, said at a Congressional hearing last week: "We believe there is clearly a societal crisis in terms of credibility of drug company results."

What does this have to do with the election? Well, the drug pricing issue looms ever larger, and some Americans perceive the Bush administration's stance against drug imports as a sop to corporations. Critics also grouse that the Bushies want to keep a strong leader out of the FDA, because inaction in the agency leaves pharma room to do what it wants. The administration has had trouble keeping a leader at the FDA: Commissioner Mark McClellan was not appointed until 2002, and left earlier this year to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Critics also allege that McClellan was pro-industry to start with, having served on Bush's Council of Economic Advisers before heading the FDA.

Just as Republicans appear to have a soft spot for pharma, pharma, in turn, appears to favour the Republicans. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry has given 65% of its campaign contributions to Republicans in this election cycle, and only 35% to Democrats.

What's still not clear is whether people's growing discomfort over some of the drug industry's practices will affect anyone's votes. Senior citizens are the ones that pay the most for drugs, and they're not shy about turning up at the voting booths - a huge 72% of Americans over 65 voted in 2000. If they're angry enough about the Bush administration's weak plans to cut drug costs, it just might make a difference.

Day 2: Candidates keep quiet on climate change

Emma Marris

Climate change is something of a dirty word in this campaign. The Bushies admit that it exists, but they are squeamish about it, as if it's something rather improper to mention in front of children - er, I mean swing voters. The Kerry crew is little better. They might mention climate change in passing whilst exclaiming at their own environmental wholesomeness, but are not big on specifics.

The reason for all this tip-toeing around is that fixing global warming boils down to, among other things, burning less coal. Coal sounds a bit anachronistic to people in most parts of the United States - who are likely to associate it with Charles Dickens and making Santa Claus angry - but it still accounts for 52% of US electricity.

And going after the coal industry doesn't play well in Ohio or West Virginia, where large swathes of the population get their paychecks from outfits like Consolidation Coal Co., and where Al Gore lost narrowly in 2000. One might also mention donations to the campaigns by the coal mining industry, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, have so far dumped $1,533,787 into the coffers of the Republican Party, and dashed off a few checks worth $134,855 to the Dems, for good measure.

Neither candidate wants to be associated - as Gore was - with the Kyoto protocol, an agreement whose proposed emissions reductions would now be all but impossible for the US to meet, but which are nonetheless criticized as inadequate to confront the scale of the global problem. Instead, they prefer to talk about technology-based solutions, such as clean-burning coal.

So it is no surprise that while Tony Blair spoke out on climate change last week, making it a priority for Britain's turn to take the presidencies of the European Union and the G8, and coming down hard - rhetorically at least - in favor of big international fixes, both US presidential candidates were still ducking the issue.

Blair said: "We have to recognise that the commitments reflected in the Kyoto protocol and current EU policy are insufficient, uncomfortable as that may be, and start urgently building a consensus based on the latest and best possible science." And, while chastising the US quietly on Kyoto, he provided cover for the candidate's inaction by misrepresenting a Senate vote that took place seven years ago. "We know there is disagreement with the US over this issue. In 1997 the US Senate voted 95-0 in favour of a resolution that stated it would refuse to ratify such a treaty. I doubt time has shifted the numbers very radically," he said.

In fact, the 95-0 Senate vote was for a resolution that called for developing world involvement in Kyoto, and a lack of "serious harm to the economy of the United States"; it was worded in a way that won the backing of senators who were strongly supportive of the idea of the protocol. As for movement, a climate change resolution put forward in October 2003 by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman (D, CT) and John McCain (R, AZ), giving the EPA the authority to set emissions limits for large chunks of the economy, won 43 votes, indicating growing support for action here.

Neither Bush, Blair's big pal, nor Kerry, the environmentalist's great green hope, have made any comment on Blair's international call to arms. Kerry reckons he can count on the environmentalists' votes anyway. As for Bush, he figures he doesn't need 'em.

Day 1: Could Global Warming Sway the Election?

News may come and go, but for the last month two stories have dominated America's front pages: President George W. Bush and Democratic hopeful John Kerry hitting each other, and the fact that another hurricane has hit, is hitting, or will hit the southern states.

These might look like separate fights - but they are, in fact, related. Florida is a critical swing state in this election: in 2000, balloting issues there took the election all the way to the Supreme Court. That happened after a much less spectacular hurricane season than this one.

A few days ago I read that hurricanes need warm water to form, and the little gears in my head started turning: could global warming heat the oceans and cause more hurricanes? If so, could it actually be swaying the US election? Bush and Kerry are sharply divided on the climate change issue, so the idea seemed to have a certain irony to it.

I called Kerry Emmanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to ask if climate change was making any difference to hurricane frequency.

"The question of how hurricanes respond to climate change is not a solved problem," he told me. The waters of the Atlantic have warmed in the past fifty years, he said, and I had read correctly that warm water is a necessary ingredient for hurricanes. But the temperature has only risen about .075ºC - hardly enough to make a noticeable impact. Natural oscillations in the surface pressure over the Atlantic Ocean play a much larger role, and create a 30-40 year cycle over which hurricane frequency increases and decreases. At the moment, Emmanuel points out, we are at the peak of one such cycle.

Many climate scientists think that global warming will lead to an increased frequency of extreme weather events. But most argue firmly against linking any specific events - such as this year's batch of hurricanes in the Caribbean - to global warming.

So much for that connection; but what about a more physical link between the recent mayhem in Florida and the coming poll? Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, says it will almost certainly influence how Floridians vote - or if they even vote at all. Tens of billions of dollars in damage to property, shortages of supplies and disruptions in work and family schedules will continue to have an effect on voters well into November. "I suspect it will suppress turnout," he said. That could hurt President Bush, because three-quarters of Florida's Republicans live in an area that received a one-two punch from hurricane Charlie and hurricane Frances.

But John Kerry is also suffering, according to Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The ongoing emergency has prevented Kerry from campaigning effectively in the state. President Bush, on the other hand, has had ample opportunity to fly into the state wielding millions of dollars of federal disaster aid. Perhaps on November 2, we'll find out how reassuring and/or irritating these trips have looked to the people of the windswept sunshine state.

Asked why he thought Florida was being buffeted by so many storms Daniel Smith offers his own theory on the link between elections and climate. "This is just God's wrath for the 2000 election," he says. "He is going to keep smashing us with hurricanes until we get our election system cleaned up down here."

It's enough to make your head spin.

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