In a presentation titled “Climate Change and the 2012 Election: The New Wedge Issue?” Washington Post journalist Juliet Eilperin remarked Monday that she used to believe that the environment held little political weight.
“I actually think this is a really interesting moment,” she said, “It is a moment that is challenging a position I’ve held for a long time, which is that the environment doesn’t play a role in elections.”
Eilperin spoke Monday to an audience of around 50 about the intersection of environmentalism and politics in a forum hosted by the Woods Institute for the Environment in the Hartley Conference Center. She particularly touched on climate change denial by current Republican presidential candidates.
As an author, journalist and academic, Eilperin has become an expert in environmental policy. During her first year as a journalist for The Washington Post, she produced over 200 articles, becoming the newspaper’s most prolific writer. In the spring of 2005, she became the youngest ever McGraw professor at Princeton, her alma mater, and continued to report on presidential campaigns and primaries.
She fondly remembered her experiences while reporting on the environment, including scuba diving with sharks, trekking in the Arctic and crawling through caves in pursuit of rare insects.
In particular, Eilperin stressed the importance of the 2012 election for environmental politics.
Discussing differences between the 2011 primaries and the 2008 presidential election, Eilperin said that most of the current Republican candidates have denied the connection between human action and climate change, while the candidates from both sides of the 2008 campaign accepted mainstream scientific consensus.
“Because John McCain became the nominee,” Eilperin said, “[climate change] really was not an issue in the general election… Both major candidates endorsed mandatory regulations, including deep cuts in greenhouse gases by 2050.”
Eilperin cited quotes showing that candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have all openly dismissed the existence of climate change or the connection between human action and global climate change. Even Mitt Romney, who has before said “the world is getting warmer… [and] I believe humans contribute to that,” recently reversed his opinion to “we don’t know what is causing climate change on this planet,” Eilperin noted.
“Half the freshman class in the Republican party [is] on record denying the connection between human activity and climate change,” Eilperin said. “Among conservative Republicans… skepticism is rising. Seventy-five percent of staunch conservatives say there is no solid evidence that climate change is even occurring.”
Eilperin discussed how environmental policy has gained considerable weight, but its impact is difficult to predict.
“This has the potential to become a wedge issue,” she said. “What is so interesting is whether it will be a wedge issue for the left or a wedge issue for a right.”
Eilperin said that this represents a significant change from the past.
“I have never seen an election where I felt like the environmental issue was a huge wedge issue for voters,” she said.
Eilperin said she believes that the advantage lies with the left.
“If you contrast [the GOP’s opinion] with the general electorate, at least if you look at straight polls, they show… support for someone who addresses global warming,” she said.
“For Democrats and independents, you have more to gain by advertising this idea that you would address climate change,” Eilperin said. “It is significantly more of an asset than a liability for a presidential candidate.”