State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Growing Awareness and Prominence of Environmental Sustainability

I know that there is a great deal of ideological intensity in our culture today: our attention is constantly drawn to distinctions between red states and blue states and between conservatives and liberals. While conservatives often oppose government action to remedy problems, most environmental problems are plain to see, and there is more consensus than you’d think on the need to keep our air, water, and land free of poisons. We agree there is a problem, we don’t always agree on the solution.

Throughout the 21st century Gallup has asked its respondents: How much do you personally worry about the quality of the environment? In March of 2001, 77% responded: “a great deal” or a “fair amount” and 22% said “only a little” or “not at all.” In 2021, the response was 75%-24%, and this past March, 71%-28%. Given the margin of error in those surveys, those responses are substantively the same—most Americans are worried about environmental quality. In 2001, 57% of those sampled thought the environment was getting worse, and 36% thought it was getting better. This past spring, 59% thought it was getting worse, and 35% thought it was getting better. The stability of these perceptions of the environment is striking. Americans in the 21st century worry about the environment, but unlike 20th century Americans, they no longer identify with environmentalism.

Gallup paints a picture of an American electorate that does not consider itself to be “environmentalists”—57% rejected that label in 2022. But at one time, many more Americans considered themselves environmentalists. In 1989, 76% said they were environmentalists, and only 20% said they weren’t. What changed? People still see the problem, but they have come to mistrust the solutions proposed by “environmentalists.” The image of environmentalism has suffered as environmental advocacy left the political center and became a left-wing issue. But paradoxically, most Americans care about environmental quality and for a long time have worried that it is getting worse. Environmentalism and environmental advocacy have become victims of America’s polarization politics.

People continue to worry about the environment, but is environmental quality actually getting worse? The issue is complicated. Some environmental resources, such as America’s air and water, are cleaner today than they were in 1970 when we established EPA. We have moved millions of people out of pathways of exposure to toxic waste. But biodiversity is threatened, invasive species have increased, and the climate is being altered. Drinking water and sewage infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. I think Americans are correct to worry that the environment is getting worse. More to the point, when we ignore the environment, it gets worse; when we apply attention, ingenuity, and new technology to its care, it gets better. Despite many more motor vehicles in 2022 than in 1970, air pollution from motor vehicles is lower today than it was 50 years ago.

But what happened to environmentalism? What went wrong? In my view, there have been two forces at work here. One is corporate and conservative propaganda arguing that regulation harms the economy. That is the “job-killing regulation” argument. The fact that regulation tends to create jobs as industry complies with new standards seems to be ignored. The second force that has harmed environmentalism is self-inflicted. It’s the arrogant scolding attitude of some environmentalists: Shaming families for buying SUVs. Telling people that their consuming behaviors are unethical. The first environmentalists were conservationists aiming to preserve forests and lands for posterity but also for hunting and fishing. With over six million members, the National Wildlife Federation is America’s largest environmental organization. It was founded in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. Its founders and many of its members were and are hunters and anglers. Vegetarian environmentalists came a little later.

What is needed is a big-tent version of environmentalism comprised of rural hunters and anglers, environmental justice advocates, and environmentalists willing to work with people who share environmental values but differ on other issues. That coalition is sitting there, ready to activate.

While the last few decades have made environmental protection a more partisan issue, there is strong evidence that young liberals and conservatives are more concerned about the environment than older conservatives. Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy of the Pew Research Center wrote in 2020 that:

“There is strong consensus among Democrats that the federal government is doing too little on key aspects of the environment, such as protecting water and air quality and reducing the effects of climate change. But among Republicans, there are sizable differences in views by generation. Millennial and younger Republicans – adults born in or after 1981 – are more likely than Republicans in the Baby Boomer or older generations to think government efforts to reduce climate change are insufficient (52% vs. 31%).”

Young conservatives do not buy the solutions to environmental problems proposed by liberals and supported by young progressives, but they understand the problem. Part of the reason for this growing awareness is that senior-level private sector managers have begun to see both the risk and opportunity in environmental problems. The opportunity lies in the new products and services that are finding market appeal because they appeal to environmental values. Investors are devoting capital to electric vehicles, sustainable fashion, physical and nutritional wellness, nature excursions, and sustainable supply chains. Corporations are conducting life cycle analyses of their products to identify places to reduce waste, costs, and environmental impacts. Agri-businesses like Land O’Lakes are using automation, artificial intelligence, and satellite data to precisely calibrate the water, fertilizer, and pesticides they apply to crops—reducing pollution run-off while saving massive amounts of money.

Investors have begun to see the financial risks posed by environmental degradation. They are demanding that companies analyze and disclose those risks, and the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission is proposing a complex rule governing the requirements for soon-to-be-mandated climate risk disclosures. Extreme weather, sea level rise, and shifting climates are impacting agriculture, manufacturing, shipping, and virtually all economic activities. Young conservatives are unlikely to reject an assignment from their CEOs to analyze and discuss climate risk. CEOs need to understand that risk since it has started to hit their bottom line and investors need to understand environmental risk to assess the financial risk of their investments.

What we are seeing is that environmental awareness has come full circle. In the 1970s and 1980s, preventing pollution was a consensus issue since pollution was observable and obviously dangerous. It is returning to consensus status for the same reason. In the later part of the 20th century, air, water, and toxics regulation stimulated private sector technological innovation: water filtration, sewage treatment, waste-to-energy, catalytic converter, and stack scrubber technologies enabled cost-effective compliance with environmental rules. Climate policy is starting to do the same thing in the 21st century. Advances in renewable energy and battery technologies are occurring with growing frequency. Electric vehicles are no longer visionary prototypes but mass market production models.

Anyone paying attention realizes we are on a more crowded and polluted planet. If we are to continue to grow our economies, we need to pay greater attention to the environmental impact of our production and consumption. The field of sustainability management has been developed to ensure we learn how to do that, and the entire field is built on a growing awareness of the needs of environmental sustainability.

Objective conditions have always been the foundation of environmental policy. You could see and smell polluted air, water, and toxic waste. Moreover, cause and effect could also be observed: You could see the pipes and smokestacks spewing out poison. Climate change and biodiversity are more subtle and less easily observable problems, and, unlike many 20th-century issues, the cause and effect are global and beyond the reach of sovereign states. Nevertheless, the impacts predicted by climate modelers decades ago can now be seen, and the risks posed are being internalized by capital markets resulting in the demand for corporate climate disclosure. Ideological efforts to oppose these disclosures will have the same impact as a move to end financial accounting might have: no impact whatsoever. Growing environmental threats have increased environmental awareness throughout society and increased the prominence of our efforts to ensure that economic growth is accomplished with as little environmental impact as possible.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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