The politics of Earth Day

Each April, I look forward to the product launches, promotional campaigns and environmental press coverage sparked by Earth Day. While we at Shelton Group have historically bemoaned the flash-in-the-pan nature of the event and have even warned about the risk of being drowned out in the eco-advertising tsunami, most of us secretly love it.

My inbox is full of interesting links like Apple’s “Better” environmental initiatives video and their less-than-subtle full-page ad taking a swing at Samsung. I also liked NASA’s Earth Right Now global selfie event promoting new earth science initiatives.

But what I noticed most was a troubling theme: the increasing politicization of environmentalism.

NPR ran a great story by Frank James on ConservAmerica, a Republican group focused on environmental protection. The headline read, “Green GOP Group Caught Between ‘Rock and a Hard Place.’” It seems that many GOP members prefer not to acknowledge the rich environmental heritage of their party. We forget that it was a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who created the U.S. National Parks System, and that Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. Yet today, ConservAmerica struggles for funding and has come under fire from Republican legislators for scoring their environmental votes – a practice the group has recently given up.

The National Review ran a story on President Obama’s Earth Day flight from Washington, D.C., to Washington state, gleefully noting that it generated 868 tons of carbon. Likewise, Fox News slammed the EPA for their “jet-fueled Earth Day-themed tour,” highlighting EPA administrator Gina McCarthy’s five-city promotional trip, along with the agency’s ‘‘contentious” proposal to set emissions caps for new coal-fired power plants.

Americans, obviously influenced by this kind of partisan coverage of environmental issues, mirror this divide in their opinions about climate change. This month Gallup reported that “only a little more than one-third of Americans say they worry ‘a great deal’ about climate change.” But what’s striking is that Gallup, like Shelton Group, finds that political affiliation is highly predictive of attitude on this issue.

According to Gallup, more than 50% of Democrats say they worry a great deal about climate change, while only 29% of Independents and 16% of Republicans say they do.

Each year in our Energy Pulse study, we ask respondents how much they agree with this statement: “Global warming, or climate change, is occurring, and it is primarily caused by human activity.” On a positive note, we saw a significant increase in agreement on the issue in last year’s study: 64% agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 57% in 2012. What’s startling, however, is that 74% of Democrats agreed, compared to only 34% of Republicans.

Granted, climate change has become a particularly polarizing issue due to related regulatory actions thought to be anti-business by conservatives and Al Gore’s early ownership of the issue. But when did concern for the environment become synonymous with liberalism and anti-capitalist sentiment? When did conservation become a bad word? We’ve actually had multiple clients tell us that we can’t use that word in messaging because they’re sure that it will alienate their customers.

The fact is that conservation is actually a good word – one of the few environmental descriptors that tests well with both liberals and conservatives. It’s time we started finding common ground like this. I think it’s possible for both sides of the aisle to reach agreement on environmental issues, even if it’s for very different reasons. For example, my father, a staunch Republican, is also a strong advocate for protecting natural resources, because he likes to hunt. While that might offend animal rights activists, if the two sides came together, we could see a win-win for habitat protection.

I look forward to an Earth Day that’s less about red and blue and more about what’s best for all of us.


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Posted on

April 24, 2014

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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