This Thursday, April 22, is the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, one of the most significant secular movements observed worldwide. Modeled after the anti-war and civil rights movements that preceded it, the first Earth Day, held on April 19, 1970, was a massive demonstration where millions of people took to the streets to rally for environmental justice. The event supported the advancement of a series of legislation in the years to come: an amended Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (Time).
Fifty-one years later, the environmental threats we face are no less severe, and Earth Day has lost its teeth (Teen Vogue). But a new generation is leading the charge in addressing them through advocacy and activism. We surveyed over 1,000 of our readers under 18 about Earth Day, this climate crisis, and where we go from here.
I wish I knew how wide[spread] it was. You always learn about turtles and the beaches with plastic but never the island forming in the Pacific or the rivers full of it bc of the factories on their edges.”
Anonymous response to “What do you wish you knew about climate change when you were younger?” from our Earth Week Survey.
A clear and consistent point of feedback was the lack of education on environmental justice provided in school. Part of this was intentional: corporations seeded misinformation about climate change to schools. A prominent example of this happened in 2017, when the Heartland Institute, a conservative advocacy organization, mailed climate science curriculum with false information to thousands of teachers across the country (Inside Climate News). The content argued that most scientists disagree that humans contributed to global warming or that climate change is such a big deal (which is false). It encourages teachers to educate their students on this “vibrant debate” and tell “all sides” of the story. Read perspectives from science teachers.
But influencing school curriculum is just part of how corporations intentionally skewed the dialogue around climate change to protect their bottom line. The fossil fuel industry would create fake grassroots organizations that would “stand in solidarity” with their organizations. They created misinformation campaigns to vilify other organizations to protect their own. And, they wielded public, philanthropic campaigns to double down on the benefits of their work (Grist). The NAACP notes how these campaigns would specifically aim to discredit the concerns of poor communities and communities of color, chastising them for not taking more personal responsibility or dismissing their demands as impossible (NAACP). An investigation revealed that ExxonMobil gave nearly $31 million between 1998 and 2014 to 69 groups that spread climate misinformation. Similarly, the Koch brothers have given over $100 million to 84 groups since 1997 (Inside Climate News).
Other corporations weren’t as deliberate but also contributed to misconstruing environmental activism. Recognizing that consumers were increasingly eco-conscious but wary of the costs to meet those demands, corporations invested in greenwashing, campaigns that hinted at eco-friendly initiatives that are often anything but. In this way, corporations signaled that consumers could make earth-friendly choices by shopping with them, using phrases like “upcycled,” “sustainable,” “natural,” and “ethical.” This Innisfree “Hello, I’m Paper Bottle” controversy is a blatant example. As of November 2020, roughly 63% percent of U.S. adults said they believed “purchasing sustainable brands or products makes a difference for our environment” (Ipsos).
Social media has made it easier for misinformation to take root, which only complicates the issue. Earlier this year, Facebook committed to addressing inaccurate information on climate change, including and information labels to posts about climate change that direct people to a climate change information hub and updating that hub with facts from trusted institutions (Market Watch). Last week, the organization announced that it now uses 100% renewable energy and reached net-zero emissions. Skeptics quickly noted that this announcement sounds hollow if they don’t live up to their word (Market Watch).
40% of our survey respondents learned about the urgency of climate change on social media, more than any other source (and compared to 24% in school). Ensuring that information is accurate and trusted is critical for empowering the next generation with the right tools to take action.
All of this contributes to why many of us may believe that personal responsibility was a critical component of environmental justice. This isn’t inherently dangerous; it’s essential to raise awareness and make kids feel empowered to change the world early. But it’s a half-truth, one that shields corporations and government from accountability. More damaging, it draws an unhealthy correlation that individual actions improve the conditions for individual people. It also ignores the intersection of environmental justice and systemic oppression,
I wish I knew that the climate crisis is not just about the environment but is connected to all our systems of oppression.
In response to “What do you wish you knew about climate change when you were younger?” from our Earth Week Survey.
Saving the Earth isn’t a single-focus issue. Progress lies at the intersection of nearly every human rights issue. Incarceration, immigration, disability justice, global security, landback initiatives – we can’t address any of these until we are willing to analyze how climate change encourages and exacerbates each. In addition, we must understand that the brunt of the adverse impact of climate change will be felt by those most marginalized – not necessarily those that forget to recycle – creating a never-ending cycle of cause and effect. The voices most impacted are often left out of the conversation, developing policies and practices that don’t center those most harmed.
92% of youth under the age of 18 are not learning about environmental racism in school.
But today, some of the most inspiring environmental justice initiatives of the past few years have been led by youth, most notably, the climate strikes of 2019 (Verge). You’ll hear more about these initiatives later this week. Despite this, an overwhelming 56.8% of our youth respondents feel hopeless or very hopeless about the future of this planet. This Earth Week, consider: how can you raise your voice to support more accurate and inclusive environmental justice initiatives? Where can you move in to lead or move back to follow? And most importantly, how do you plan on joining the fight?