Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Notes from a Talk by Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin gave a presentation at Princeton University this week on the politics of climate and energy. In 2007, she published a book on the increasing partisanship in the U.S. Congress called Fight Club Politics, and a subsequent book on sharks called Demon Fish. She found sharks to be more sympathetic creatures than many of the players in Congress.

Here are some notes from the talk, which was sponsored by the Program in Science, Techology and Environmental Policy:
  • She began by describing the shift in the Republican position on climate change. In 2008, Fred Thompson was the only Republican primary candidate for the presidency who denied human-caused climate change. By 2012, however, climate change had become a wedge issue for Republicans, Romney came under intense pressure to abandon his previous, more moderate views on the issue, and the EPA became the most attacked agency in Washington. 
  • The public is broadly supportive of action on climate change. A Washington Post poll showed 90% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans in favor of limits on greenhouse gases. There is, unfortunately, a lack of voter intensity on the issue. The number of voters who consider it a top concern (not sure if this is among all issues or among environmental issues) has dropped from 33% in 2007 to 18% now. She believes this drop is in part a response to the fact that politicians have stopped talking about climate. 
  • Democratic politicians feel they can take environmentalists for granted, given environmentalists have nowhere else to go for representation. The youth vote, however, requires more cultivation, and may be one reason Obama responded to's Bill McKibbon's demonstrations in Washington and delayed building the Keystone pipeline from Canada.
  • Eilperin listed a number of 2012 races for Congress in which environmentalists had a clear impact on getting Democrats elected, in Montana, New Mexico and elsewhere. The League of Conservation Voters in particular showed that it had learned how to be effective in campaigns. Her article on the subject can be found here.
  • She mentioned Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina whose concern about climate change was used against him by the Tea Party to defeat him in a Republican primary a few years back. Since then, he's been spending time trying to get Republicans more concerned about climate. 
During Q and A, when asked about whether the mainstream media has adequately covered climate change in the past five years, Eilperin vigorously defended the Washington Post, NY Times and other publications and their coverage of the issue. 

The Importance of Repetition

What I believe is missing here is an understanding of how important repetition is for conveying the importance of an issue. Eilperin and other top reporters may publish well-researched articles, but it's the day to day reporting that determines what registers with readers. Since climate change doesn't generate as much news as, for instance, the stock exchange, then people will believe that the intensely reported daily swings of the market matter more than the largely unnoticed, relentless accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 
       Ms. Eilperin herself referred to the importance of repetition when saying people became less concerned about climate change when politicians stopped talking about it. 

Fire Ecology's Parallels with Climate Change

Afterwards, I asked her about an issue with parallels to climate change: fire ecology. Typical news coverage of wildfires will not mention that much of the destruction is human caused (more on this in another post, here), through mismanagement of forests and the building of homes in fire-prone areas. She responded by encouraging me to read several articles on fire ecology written by one of her colleagues. I'm sure if I can find those articles, they'll be excellent. But a few articles offering context will not compensate for the misleading template for day to day coverage of fires, which portrays humans as victims and blames the stray match or cigarette that may have started the fire, rather than the unnatural accumulations of fuel and the folly of building homes in harm's way. 
      This sort of day to day reporting reinforces the impression that people are victims of a "natural" disaster, while the truth is that human activity fuels the intensity and destructiveness of nature's fury. This oft-repeated misrepresentation--extending back many years before climate change became an issue and still embedded in the conventions of reporting today--makes people less receptive to believing that human activity could also affect climate. 

Bob Inglis

His transformation from Clinton-hating conservative firebrand to moderate, open-minded Republican deeply concerned about climate change is an inspiring story. There are many good articles on the web. This Wall Street Journal article is a good place to start, and if you can find the video of the congressional hearing in fall 2008, co-led by Inglis, you can see him in action in his last days as a Republican congressman.

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