While environmental issues are more ingrained in the public mind than ever, Earth Day isn’t treated with the same level of gravitas in America that it was when first celebrated 45 years ago today, according to some local academics and activists.
Whether this is a sign of success or failure in addressing environmental issues is open to debate.
“I think perhaps some have lost interest in Earth Day because we take for granted that there will always be clean water, clean air and abundant food supplies,” said Duncan Hughes, headwaters outreach director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “This is not a given.”
The politicization of science, particularly with regard to climate change, has also played a role in the waning popularity of Earth Day.
“I think part of the way in which science has been politicized is that folks pick the exceptions and make an argument that that’s the rule,” said Jeffrey Berejikian, an associate professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia who has expertise in environmental politics.
While seminal environmental legislation, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, emerged in the immediate years following the first Earth Day in 1970, similar rallying points have not come since.
In fact, the opposite is true, in many cases, as certain interests work to strip protections in the acts, while animosity toward the federal Environmental Protection Agency has reached a fever pitch in some political circles.
Finally, there is a growing awareness about the economic costs associated with environmental issues, costs that are prohibitive for some businesses but good for the bottom line of others.
The seeping in
In some ways, Earth Day’s influence rests with how great an urgency the public places on addressing environmental issues.
“I would say the initial radical meaning of Earth Day is not diminished, but environmental values are now such a part of culture that we don’t notice how our own consciousness and values have changed,” said John O’Sullivan, a professor in the University of North Georgia’s Institute for Environmental & Spatial Analysis.
It seems paradoxical then that as the scientific consensus forms around the threat posed by environmental issues such as climate change, the American public appears less concerned than ever.
For example, a 1971 poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation reported that 63 percent of respondents said conserving, restoring and enhancing the environment was “very important.”
But a similar 2013 Huffington Post media group poll found that just 39 percent of respondents said it was “very important,” with a growing level of indifference among many surveyed.
And 56 percent of respondents to the 1971 poll supported increased federal spending to protect the environment, while in 2013 that figure fell to only 29 percent, and 33 percent said spending should be decreased.
Perhaps this polling explains why the Pentagon says climate change is a national security issue, but no mention was made of it during the final and most critical debate of the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
It may also explain why a consensus of scientists identify the link between humans, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, while the general public isn’t as convinced.
According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, 61 percent of Americans believe that solid evidence exists showing that the world is warming as a result of emissions, but less than half of respondents said it was a major threat to the United States.
These figures were higher or lower, respectively, depending on whether the respondent identified as a Democrat or Republican.
Environmental issues have seeped into the collective consciousness in a way that makes addressing them seem less pressing.
“Our society has become increasingly disconnected from the resources which sustain us,” Hughes said. “Water does not come from pipes; food does not originate in the grocery store.”
Politicizing Mother Nature
While environmental issues, such as access to clean water, air pollution and climate change, are as pressing as ever in a world bursting at its population seams, debate about these issues in the United States has never been more politically charged.
Indeed, partisanship has cast a pall over the entire debate, with those on one side of the political aisle sounding the alarm about impending doom, and those on the other side calling climate change a hoax.
“And so, as a result, many college students and other Americans may choose not to call themselves ‘environmentalists’ because that term has been politically distorted to also mean anti-progress, tree-hugging, communist, dirt-worshiping pagan,” O’Sullivan said. “However, this is inaccurate political hyperbole.”
But even while Americans may disassociate from this label, O’Sullivan said he believes the public is united in wanting things like more efficient cars, lights, buildings and appliances.
Berejikian said he sees the political brinksmanship of climate science play out among his students, and that there is a growing understanding about the ways “in which science is used for political purposes.”
For example, Berejikian said, people find one study that discredits or discounts the human impact and influence on climate change while not recognizing that the balance of the evidence supports the conclusion that it is real and happening.
So while the debate in the United States is stuck on whether climate change is really happening, there is little discussion about what policies to enact to manage the threat on a global level.
More to the point, Berejikian said international politics is currently consumed with conflict, be it terrorism, war or foreign relations.
“It crowds out really any other discussion about human rights or environmental politics,” he said.
In some ways, the debate over global warming and climate change has been muddied and trivialized by the media’s coverage of it, Berejikian said.
“They’re covered like other public policy debates,” Berejikian said. “A lot of the reporting is on the two sides of the debate, rather than on the discussions and conclusions within the scientific community. The discussion gets short-circuited to the political debate about global warming.”
But even if the public and politicians come to a consensus about the validity of climate change, earnest debate remains a challenge.
Last year, in a series of editorials, the Washington Post tried to take the lead, laying waste to the climate change debate by saying it had devolved to a point of absurdity.
The newspaper’s editors said they wanted to push the debate beyond whether climate change is real, which they believe it unequivocally is, and into the realm of what to do about it.
But herein lies the final problem in adequately addressing the issue.
The economic issue
Environmental issues, most especially climate change, cannot be removed from economics.
This, in part, could explain why so much antagonism exists.
People can draw connections between environmental science and its impact on their own lives: If the prospect of job losses and reduced wages is the result of an environmental policy, such as regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, then it’s easy to understand why people would be upset and have little appetite for engaging in the long, complicated journey of mitigating climate change.
Berejikian said his students often inquire about the climate change debate, sometimes wondering if we shouldn’t act because the debate is still raging.
“At the end of the day, at least in international politics, environmental issues … become economic issues,” Berejikian said. “We negotiate over the economic costs of environmental protection.”
And in difficult economic times, such as the Great Recession, this debate gets pushed to the background.
“It’s an even harder sell if someone says it’s unclear what the source of the environmental damage is,” Berejikian said.
But the economic side of the debate plays the other way, too.
If you’re in the business of building sea walls, for example, and scientists’ predictions hold true, the next few decades could be lucrative.
And major industries are beginning to understand just how costly not addressing climate change can be for their bottom line.
For example, Coca-Cola lost an operating license in India 11 years ago because of water shortages, and last year the company issued a statement about its own plans to mitigate the impact of a warming planet.
“We recognize that climate change may have long-term direct and indirect implications for our business and supply chain,” the statement reads in part. “As a responsible multinational company, we have a role to play in ensuring we use the best possible mix of energy sources, improve the energy efficiency of our manufacturing processes and reduce the potential climate impact of the products we sell.”
Berejikian said there is fairly narrow set of strategies for dealing with climate change, and that he believes consensus around market-based solutions can be found.
Where do we go from here?
Wherever the debate about climate change goes, for some environmental activists there is a certain love affair with April 22. And some believe that a renaissance of the annual celebration, at least in the public’s imagination, can turn the tide on the climate change debate.
But where to begin?
For Hughes, of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the answer is simple: engage today’s youth.
“Reading , math and writing are extremely important, but so is an understanding of how our world works, how all things are connected and how our actions matter,” he said.
For a younger generation, this message seems to resonate.
Indeed, Earth Day is still a big deal on many college campuses, and more focus is being placed on what individuals can do to protect the environment, whether it’s driving less, consuming less water or actively organizing in support of public policy.
Brenau University, for example, is hosting a fair on its front lawn today to celebrate Earth Day, with live music, food and informational exhibits.
Moreover, universitys have more programs than ever for students interested in environmental science careers.
Kelly Norman, executive director of Keep Hall Beautiful, said Americans have adopted good environmental practices, such as recycling, into their daily lives.
And with events like litter patrols and river clean-ups organized year-round, Earth Day becomes more than just a 24-hour period in late April, leading many activists to believe the next generation will push the debate forward and the solutions into existence.
“ … My entire job is related to environmental stewardship, where every day is Earth Day” Norman said. “The awareness is certainly there.”
Indeed, reports of the death of Earth Day seem premature.
“Earth Day is here to stay and the movement for a clean and sustainable future grows more each year,” O’Sullivan said. “With a little luck and some continued hard work, we might be able to leave a healthy planet for future generations.”