Here is the second installment of a series that I am writing for Next Gen Journal!
The environmental movement in the United States is young. But it has been created on mass action and solidarity since its inception in 1970 when the first Earth Day was organized. Over 20 million people participated. Today the movement has spread, and 1 billion people partake in the green fanfare of April 22. This mentality has created the basis for organizations like 350.org.
Both groups are dedicated to developing solidarity around climate change issues. They rally thousands of people to sign petitions and demonstrate for environmental protection. 350 recently spear-headed an effective campaign to mobilize people from around the country to protest the development of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Yet 350 is an action-oriented organization. The purpose is to get as many people as possible to demonstrate. But passers-by, the public, and even some protestors are not fully educated on the issues. Many people do not truly understand the effect or purpose of their actions, and so momentum dies away since the fundamental importance is not understood. Immediate changes, like the re-routing of the Keystone pipeline, may occur. But the environmental consciousness is not sufficiently diffused. This makes it difficult to achieve and sustain deep societal change.
A recent report by George Mason University, “Climate Change in the American Mind”, expresses the lack of education and internalization of environmental issues among the American public. In 2008, 38% of respondents said that they always set their thermostat to 68 degrees or cooler in the winter. This number dropped to 26% in 2011. When asked if they would set the thermostat to 68 degrees or cooler over the next 12 months, in 2008 26% said they would do so more frequently. That percentage dropped to only 17% in 2011. When asked how likely people were to switch to energy-efficient light-bulbs, 44% in 2008 said they would like to and would, while in 2011 that dropped to 34%. Lastly, 42% in 2008 said that Americans’ energy-saving actions would reduce global warming. In 2011, only 26% believed this. This last one is particularly troubling.
These statistics show how current environmental strategies have failed to create a sustainable movement. One reason is that the educational component is missing. The public doesn’t understand why they are fighting or how their lives are being affected by climate change. They don’t understand how their individual behavior will join with other actions to create profound changes. How will people be motivated to act if their is no understanding of the dangers that lie in inaction? The status quo will simply continue until Americans realize that we are in peril. This pattern is beginning to change, and more and more Americans are committing to greener lifestyles. But there is still much work to be done.
The United States government has the power to change this trend. For example it could enact legislation that requires environmental education in all elementary and high schools. The curriculum does not have to be slanted. A simple presentation of the facts along with the science and debate proves that anthropogenic climate change is real and affecting our daily lives. Children will take this information home to their parents, and awareness will increase rapidly.
This program could also apply to workplaces to ensure that employees understand the effects of their actions on the environment. The government could reward both schools and workplaces with funding or tax incentives. This kind of public policy in conjunction with organizations like 350 will enable Americans to understand how they can make a difference and why it is critical. Bottom-up support enables the political demand, implementation, and maintenance of national policies. Only then will the United States’ be able to shift to a green economy and enact tough emission standards.
These are just suggestions. This approach is right for America, but it does not represent the history or cultural traditions of other countries and people. The action-oriented campaigns and lack of sustainable change are issues that do not apply to other developing or developed nations. By working on a national level, greater change can be affected. To further illustrate this point, I will next consider Bolivia and China.