Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Economy, Not the Environment: Why the Public Doesn't Care About Environmentalism

By Justin ChengPublished October 20, 2014

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In recent years, environmentalism has been viewed as a luxury, only seriously pursued when times are good. Yet, environmental policy can be applied more aggressively as economic policy to shift public opinion and get legislation passed.
By Justin Cheng, 10/20/14

This summer, President Obama reiterated his environmental policy initiatives to improve American energy efficiency and to regulate carbon emission levels from existing power plants. During his speech, Obama also responded to critics of his environmental policies and claimed that they overlooked their economic benefits for millions of Americans. As he stated, "People don't like gas prices going up. They don't like electricity prices going up. And we ignore those very real and legitimate concerns at our peril."

The full transcript of the President's speech can be found here.

While there has been much debate about Obama's environmental legacy, Obama's policy framing has been effective. Rather than solely focusing on environmental concerns, should environmentalists also highlight the economic and health consequences of ecological issues when trying to sway the American public?

Although there is substantial literature on the economic benefits of more robust environmental policy, often it's tucked away as separate annual reports or fact sheets deep inside government and NGO websites that only the dedicated dig into.

Also, recent major environmental catastrophes, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have revealed the serious economic and ecological impacts of environmental mismanagement. Despite that, Americans still seem highly apathetic towards climate issues. While there is general public consensus that climate change is a serious issue, we have yet to see the same public push for legislation as for other social issues such as marriage equality or healthcare. Even when the government proposes environmental policies that reduce health consequences and preserve valuable natural resources, the American public becomes enraged if they feel their economic livelihoods are in jeopardy. The backlash from the alleged "War on Coal" waged by the Democratic Party is a recent example. Many Americans are unresponsive to environmental affairs until they are directly affected.

With Congress is mired in gridlock, policymakers should fine-tune how they present environmental policy to the public. As President Clinton once said, "It's the economy, stupid." The government needs to focus more on environmental policy's overall tangible economic benefits.

Instead of justifying increasing investments in energy and fuel efficiency to prevent desertification; we should have more emphasis on how it can save the significantly reduce fuel costs or minimize thousands of deaths from carcinogen exposure. Environmentalists should rebrand their messages and policy proposals to include more economic analysis in order for them to address the public's concern; the best example being the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). WAP alone has cut natural gas consumption by an estimated 30.5 million site British Thermal Units between 1993-2005, improving energy efficiency and saving taxpayers millions.

However, pursuing this strategy risks creating intensified fallout to environmental policies that become economically unfeasible. The Obama administration was widely criticized after Solyndra, a major solar company, went bankrupt, despite receiving sizeable loan guarantees from the federal government. This failed investment greatly increased public skepticism of new environmental initiatives.

Policy advocates must tread a fine line to convince the public to support more robust environmental policies because of their great potential to fuel American economic growth and preserve and restore our precious natural resources.