According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are less concerned about climate change than in the past. Has the environmental movement dropped the ball on keeping the issue in the public eye?
The poll reports:
Americans continue to express less concern about global warming than they have in the past, with 51% saying they worry a great deal or fair amount about the problem — although attitudes appear to have stabilized compared with last year. That current level of worry compares with 66% just three years ago, and is only one percentage point higher than the low Gallup measured in 1997.
There are any number of theories that explain why Americans seem less interested in this issue now than they were in the days when Al Gore told inconvenient truths. Perhaps the protracted recession has pushed all other concerns from the minds of most Americans. Perhaps the effort by the conservative/libertarian pundit class to add doubt and scorn to the political environment surrounding this issue has had an effect.
Or, perhaps, it’s because there is no sustained media effort by the environmental movement to keep its ideas in the political forefront. Gore’s movie helped to push the conversation in the eco-conscious direction, but it obviously wasn’t enough.
We simply do not have an ideologically focused green media in the United States. The environmental movement is at risk of dying out in this country if eco-conscious people don’t borrow a few tactics from their adversaries in the conservative/libertarian pundit class.
The critics of today’s environmental movement are sustained by a conservative media apparatus specifically created to keep the right’s ideas in perpetual prominence. Conservatives had a compelling interest in building this media empire, as they believed their contenders were too often getting adverse rulings from biased referees in the arena of ideas.
It’s not enough to complain about this conservative media apparatus, to attack it for peddling misinformation about climate science, to denounce it for its smears of those concerned about this issue. Why not replicate the right’s tactics? Why not work to build up an environmental media apparatus geared to promoting green policy initiatives and obtaining specific political outcomes?
Clearly, environmentalists can no longer rely upon the mainstream media to devote sufficient time to these issues. As economist Bruce Bartlett noted in 2009:
[The mainstream press] no longer has the resources to pay reporters to look into things deeply and write about issues authoritatively. Reporters even at the best newspapers often seem like glorified bloggers who get their basic facts from the Internet instead of their own research, substitute speed for thoroughness and accuracy, and have no time to become experts on the subjects they cover because they are covering the waterfront. And since television news has always depended upon newspapers as their basic sources of material, the decline of newspaper reporting led inevitably to a decline in television reporting.
Bartlett was speaking of progressives generally, not environmentalists specifically, when he noted, “I think they need to abandon the mainstream media and create their own alternative media just as conservatives have done. That will help redress the imbalance that now exists in the media which benefits conservatives.” However, his advice is critical for environmentalists in particular.
No movement can survive for long if its core issues are not constantly reinforced in the American political conscience. Conservatives understand this: it’s why we have right-leaning think tanks, pro-Republican publications, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News. These entities may be a source of irritation for environmentalists—but why can’t they be a source of inspiration?
It’s long past time for the environmental movement to focus on its own political sustainability—to push for nationally syndicated commercial radio shows dealing with green issues, to lobby for wider distribution of documentaries on our planet’s peril, to subject the hardcore climate deniers to the same sort of public rebuke Van Jones was subjected to in 2009, to convert the environmental movement into an interest group that politicians from both parties are profoundly reluctant to antagonize.
Americans’ decreasing concern for green issues should increase the motivation of environmentalists to press harder to integrate their concerns into the national discourse. After President Lyndon Johnson destroyed Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, it seemed that Americans weren’t interested in conservatism either. The outcome of that election galvanized the American right, which spent the next four decades working to ensure that the products from their idea factories were always on the average American’s shopping list.
The green movement needs to study what worked for the conservative movement, and use those same tactics to regain the political momentum they’ve lost. Of course, environmentalists have to move much faster than conservatives did decades ago. With the physical and political climate deteriorating, environmentalists must make the ironic choice to turn up the heat.