Environmentalism has received a black eye thanks to well-positioned and funded lobbyists. Is it right to engage in scientific bashing based on politics?
It has been almost 43 years since Expo ’74 was held in the city of Spokane, WA. This was the first-ever World’s Fair to have environmentalism as its central theme — an era when recycling was virtually unheard of.
Despite being in the thick of the Watergate scandal, President Nixon welcomed many to Spokane to learn more about the green goals of the future. Visitors were invited to watch Man Belongs to Earth (1974), an educational film that focuses on environmental problems. Expo ‘74 was a gearshift from previous World Fairs, including the one held in Seattle (1962) that focused on science, technology, and industry.
A lot has changed since 1974. Citizens today are, indeed, more environmentally conscious, and are aware of how even small steps can make a difference — such as reducing waste and conserving energy. However, in some respects, little has changed since Nixon addressed the exposition — and that is more than just depressing.
When I was growing up in the UK, learning about conservation was still in its (relative) infancy. I remember that some lessons on littering were more marketed toward preserving aesthetic beauty for humans and instilling a sense of community pride. Not as much attention was given to learning about dangerous toxins or the discovery of our “plastic footprint”, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In recent years, similar gyres (also known as “plastic soups”) have also been found in both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans — yet this reality is not making big enough headlines, despite the stellar efforts of renowned scientists. Aside from attempts to clean up our oceans (which is difficult considering that particles from fragmented plastic have spread), we need to step up the pace and replace petroleum-based plastic with bio-plastics. The fossil fuel industry’s efforts to discredit and confuse climate science are well known.
It is dispiriting to still hear common phrases that I was accustomed to in the 90s — environmental activists being referred to as “tree huggers”, “Earthy people”, or even worse, mocked with a homophobic slur. Even today, we see stereotypes being played out on TV and film. For example, in the show Orange is the New Black, one of the pro-environmentalist characters (Brook Soso) was arrested for protesting and living in a tree, while also being involved in storylines where she refuses to wash.
The press is not the “enemy of the American people” — that is just the likes of Trump and Bannon being agitators and deliberately upsetting the apple cart. However, quite often some issues are not reported based on proportionality. In 2015, when a dentist from Minnesota killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, an international outrage ensued. The killing of Cecil was inexcusable, but what about other issues affecting the African nation? Zimbabwe has recently experienced a horrific drought, including destruction caused by cyclone-driven flooding. These issues have not received anywhere close to the level of attention that Cecil got. According to a recent report produced by the World Bank, “human-induced climate change” has led to extreme weather-related crises in Zimbabwe.
Climate change is a phenomenon that is doing inexpressible damage to our ecosystem. Yet, the environment often ends up being shuffled to the back of the pack in favor of other issues considered more pressing. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina instigated many scientists and other experts to closely study the relationship between climate change and extreme weather. Despite the fact that an overwhelming number of scientists have pointed out that global warming is behind more frequent and intense storms, many politicians and other public figures dismiss such research as liberal hogwash.
Recent actions by the Trump Administration are more than just predictable. The President had barely been sworn into office when mentions of climate change were being purged from the White House website. Chances are that he does not really believe that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese”, but it got him the sensational headlines he wanted, and he has made political capital out of relative apathy toward environmental issues in the US. Now we have Scott Pruitt heading up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — the same person who has decried even basic science, previously denying the health risks caused by traces of mercury in lakes and waterways.
Why are some elements of American conservatism so aggressively anti-environmentalism? It has only been in recent decades when many modern Republicans, and their respective think tanks, started to peddle the thesis that the environmental movement is a front for socialists or liberals who are hell-bent on interfering with the free market, destroying capitalism, and ergo the American Dream. It often gets forgotten that it was a GOP President, Nixon, who instigated the creation of the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
It has long been observed that the intensity between environmentalists and anti-environmentalists gained momentum during the late 80s and 90s. Environmentalism became much more of a global movement, and this led to the UN sponsoring the first-ever Earth Summit in 1992 — an event that attracted over 170 governments, including business groups, NGOs, and media representatives. The Summit became somewhat of a “turning point”, and led to many conservatives claiming that environmentalism was a domestic threat to the US, including its national sovereignty and as an economic superpower.
On one level, the Green Scare ended up replacing the Red Scare after the collapse of the USSR and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. It was also during the 90s that the US witnessed the fierce battle between the logging industry and the environmentalists who asserted that the northern spotted owl was under imminent threat. This highly publicized debacle gave many critics leverage to blame aggressive environmentalist tactics and Bill Clinton for destroying jobs. In the contemporary era, Hillary and the Democrats are still haunted by her “put a lot of coal miners out of jobs” mantra, which has created further backlash toward the development of renewable energies. While Hillary is closer to blue collar than Trump, during the election she was perceived as elitist and anti-jobs for Americans in many parts of the US.
Expo ’74 could have been the start of a green future, but hostility toward environmental protection and suspicion of climate science remains a central feature of our current politics. While our politicians continue to squabble over scientific findings, the reality of climate change is already happening within and beyond our own backyards.
Climate change is not a hoax. If it really is just hogwash, then it would be one of the biggest crimes of the 20th century — requiring so much secrecy, resources and collusion between not only scientists, but respective governments, international organizations, and other related agencies. But those who peddle climate skepticism already know this.