Reaching Across Fences: Non-Traditional Allies for the Environmental Movement

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center

Environmentalists are used to labels. Many of us have been called tree huggers, granola-eating Birkenstock wearers – or worse.

In the era of Trump-style populism and rejection of fact-based evidence and science, I argue that environmentalists need to look for allies where perhaps traditionally they were scarce for three reasons:

First, the ranks of “environmentalists” themselves are rapidly thinning. According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who identify a “environmentalists” has dropped by 34% over the past 25 years – from 79% in 1991 to 45% in 2017. Among the reasons for the drop may be the increase in political polarization of environmental issues, as only 27% of self-identified Republicans saw themselves as environmentalists, while 56% of Democrats did.

Second, younger generations are eschewing labels of any kind – political or otherwise. Their demands and needs on society and governance are more diverse than ever and reflect many crosscutting issues such as affordable education and healthcare, social mobility and greater acceptance of non-traditional social and individual lifestyle choices.

Third, environmental protection is truly a societal goal, one that cuts across all sections of society. Thus, environmentalists of the “old guard” would do well preaching less to the choir and trying harder to put themselves into the shoes of today’s American society. Blue-collar workers, for example, have seen significant erosion in their traditional job base and career paths. During his campaign, President Donald Trump tapped into this sentiment in coal country and states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Yet, rather than hoping to bring back old jobs, environmentalists need to make a stronger case for clean energy and environmental services jobs. Transitions are never easy, but the U.S. solar industry in 2016 employed more than 260,000 workers (an increase of 25% over the previous year). This means, the industry now has a higher job base than oil and natural gas combined and the trend continues to point upwards.

Another powerful target group are women. Not only are they more educated than ever before (in 2015 30.2% of women had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 29.9% of men and the growth continues among women aged 25-34 years), but a larger majority of American women also accept anthropogenic climate change and other environmental science findings (83% of women versus 66% of men according to the Pew Research Center). While all parents wish to see their children growing up surrounded by clean air and water, women tend to be more active than men in supporting environmental and social causes in their communities and beyond. These findings hold for conservative, religious and progressive households. Thus, engaging women more directly in environmental conversations can be an effective means to shift opinions at the family level and all the way to state capitols and Washington D.C.

Lastly, there is the young generation of 18-29 year olds. While the majority of so-called ‘millennials’ tend to hold more progressive views on social and environmental issues than their parents and grandparents, voter turn-out was lower than for other age groups (50% versus 58% of the voting-eligible population). Considering that millennials are now as strong a voting bloc as baby-boomers were at their peak in 2004, this represents a huge potential for engagement on environmental issues. However, as I said earlier, millennials are not a homogeneous group of voters and they do not vote based on ideology. They want to be convinced that the political system is working for them and that their diverse, issue-based opinions are heard.

Environmentalists certainly have their work cut out for them, but when I look at the opportunities among blue-collar workers, women and millennials, I am hopeful that a broader base of support for environmental actions and policies can be built between now and the 2018 mid-term elections.