Climate Action

Sticks and Stones and the Impact of Rhetoric

It’s nearly impossible to have not seen the wave of climate change denial crashing down upon us all in recent years, from empowering political fodder to driving social media campaigns designed to spread untruths. Yet this anti-environmental rhetoric is nothing new, which means we can’t lose sight of historical strategies for overcoming challenges to protecting our planet. 

The social movement of anti-environmentalism became prominent in the early 1970s, likely in response to the growth in environmental activism spurred by the first Earth Day. It is worth remembering that much of the pro-environmental legislation that followed that first Earth Day was signed by a Republican president, Nixon. But as environmental regulation grew, certain industries like farming and mining, made up of large and powerful organizations from Exxon USA to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — many of which owned vast tracts of US land for extraction in their respective industries — began to push back. 

In the 1980s, the Wise Use Movement, founded by former Sierra Club member Ron Arnold,  grew out of these industry groups who sought to fight back against environmentalists, sometimes with threats of violence. The movement was based on the idea that the privatization of land for the exploitation of natural resources was acceptable. Though Wise Use groups were present around the country, they were not alone; there were also many other salient groups that pushed anti-environmentalism rhetoric.

This seemingly fringe movement grew throughout the 1990s, when the power of public relations became an important part of the politicization of the environment. One such group was Informed Citizens for the Environment, funded by the Western Fuels Association and other energy corporations that ran ads with a slew of anti-environmental slogans such as “Who told you the Earth was warming, Chicken Little?” and “Doomsday is canceled.”  

Despite these campaigns, the 1997 passage of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets specific goals for reducing carbon emissions, sprouted out of real concerns over global warming. Though the agreement was largely ineffective as the US did not officially sign the pact, it did legitimize the idea that something was going on with the climate, which is perhaps why after this treaty, there was a clear political effort to associate environmentalism with the liberal agenda. So while environmentalism in the 1970’s had been supported by both sides of the political debate, suddenly it was being painted as part of a left wing agenda. Attempts were made by politicians involved in the Reagan administration both to question the constitutionality of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as to cut its budget by half, though these efforts did not succeed. 

This history of the politicization of environmental activism has spurred today’s conservative alignment with anti-environmentalist ideas, pairing capitalism with the exploitation of the environment and portraying liberal environmentalists as conspiracy theorists, determined to put pandas before people. The effects of the politicization of this issue and how well it has worked are laid bare in a 2022 Gallup poll, which shows that 9% of Republicans say they worry a great deal about climate change, while roughly 70% of Democrats report the same feeling. 

Beyond manipulating public opinion so that it has become political as opposed to pragmatic, there has also been an increase in the amount of money spent on lobbying for the Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM). This term describes the joining together of different business sectors to lobby against environmental policy, usually because it goes against their economic priorities. Donations to CCCM political actions committees grew from 1990-2010, coinciding with proposals that would increase environmental policy measures such as the Clean Air Act, likely being pushed forward by the wave of societal pressure coming from the first global Earth Day. 

Despite political opposition, this issue is not new, which means we know how to combat it. One of the best ways is to educate people early on about the importance of a variety of environmental actions, from planting trees to decreasing plastic use.  

A 2020 study by researchers at San José University showed that if 16 percent of middle and high school students in middle and high income countries studied climate change, carbon dioxide emissions would be lowered by 19 gigatons by 2050. 

Plus by establishing climate literacy early on, we can build Green Muscle Memory, which is a term that describes the instinctive ability to make planet-friendly choices by default.  EARTHDAY.ORG recently released a report, Climate Education vs. The Climate Crisis, which outlines how teaching climate education across different grades and content areas enables children to instinctively make the right decisions for the planet — be it using less energy, rejecting plastics, or living more sustainably in general. 

EARTHDAY.ORG has developed K-12 curricular materials to engage the young people who are inheriting our planet at a pivotal point in its, and our, future. Through early learning, we can help empower the next generation so they are armed with facts and reality: not PR and subjective opinion.