We spoke with Johanna Neumann, Senior Director for energy campaigns at Environment America, about climate change and the protection of the environment in the United States. Environment America is a national network of 29 state environmental groups with members and supporters in every state. They focus on timely, targeted action that wins tangible improvements in the quality of the environment and people’s lives. In her prior positions, Johanna led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, and helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
1014: With natural disasters increasing in numbers, frequency, and scope in the United States but also around the globe, do you observe that people in the United States become more concerned about climate change and the environment?
Johanna Neumann: Climate change is here, now, and the impacts are being felt across America. This year we have seen record-breaking wildfires burn more than 4 million acres and destroy entire towns. Severe hurricanes continue to pummel our Gulf and Southern Atlantic coasts with increasing frequency and intensity. Meanwhile, relentless droughts are causing water shortages, not only in the Western states but also in the Northeast, where rivers are running at 10 percent of average.
As the impacts of climate change become felt, more and more Americans are expressing concern. A recent by the Yale Program for Climate Communication found that 63 percent of Americans are worried about climate change. The same study found that the people who are most worried about climate change tend to be located in areas where severe climate-related impacts, like wildfires, more intense hurricanes, extreme heat, and sea-level rise have become part of everyday life.
While the impacts of climate change are being experienced, however, less than a half of Americans believe that climate change will harm them personally.
This data suggests that Americans have been and continue to be fiercely independent people. This should not be shocking to anyone who has experienced American culture or studied American history or sociology. The idea that people can protect themselves on their own and when necessary, take individal action to create a better future for themselves and for their children is ingrained in the American psyche. This emphasis on individual action permeates public opinion on many issues in America, including climate change.
American climate activists need to connect the dots for everyday Americans, telling the story of how climate change threatens their and their children’s lives - even if indirectly. That work is critical.
Yet even as the climate-action majority grows, it’s important to keep in mind that there are other approaches. One approach can be to decouple the implementation of climate solutions from climate change as an issue. There are plenty of reasons to adopt climate solutions like renewable energy, walkable and bikeable communities, expanded and improved public transportation, and energy efficiency without ever even mentioning the word climate. These solutions improve quality of life, improve health, clean up our air, and make economic sense. Importantly, these solutions can be supported by people even when they aren’t concerned or sympathetic to taking action to address climate change. My experience is to organize people where they are at, not where you wish they were. And that through incremental progress, we can not only win hearts and minds for climate but build a cleaner and greener world while we’re at it.
1014: What is your mission at Environment America and which tools do you use to achieve your goals? Can you describe some of the challenges you experience in your every-day work? What do you like about your work?
Johanna Neumann: Environment America’s mission is to transform the power of our imaginations and our ideas into change that makes our world a greener and healthier place for all.
We research the challenges confronting our environment and advocate for solutions. Through research reports, news conferences, interviews with reporters, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor and more, we educate the public about what’s at stake and what can be done. Our campaigners and organizers meet people where they are—in public places, door-to-door canvassing and online—raising awareness, recruiting new supporters and activists, and securing funds to support our work.
The biggest challenges we face in our work right now is the polarization that characterizes the American political landscape as well as the urgency and scope necessary to protect the climate.
The environment used to be, and should be, an issue that crosses party lines. Richard Nixon, a Republican, was one of our nation’s most pro-environment presidents. It was on Nixon’s watch that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created and America’s landmark environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were enacted.
Much has happened over the past 40 years; today action on the environment and health, as much else, has become polarized. Working to protect our air, water and open spaces has been lumped together by many under the “progressive” umbrella. For Environment America, which emphasizes putting the environment first in our work, this approach can sometimes put us in a no-man’s-land.
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I sometimes feel like we’re standing amid a fabric that’s being stretched apart on both sides. On the left, many of our progressive allies are choosing to bundle environmental policies that we support with other social policies that we have no position on. This puts us in a tricky spot because we won’t sign onto the entire agenda. On the right, conservative allies, who might be with us on land conservation or access to clean water, are increasingly pulled into opposition to any and all government regulation.
Climate action is urgent and broad in scope. But the country isn’t politically ready for the transformative sweep of policies that is required to solve the problem. Reconciling what’s necessary with what is possible and working towards broader change is a big challenge.
What sustains me in my work is the progress that we’ve seen. When I first started doing political organizing in 2001, my first campaign was bringing together students and faculty at West Los Angeles Community College to ask their administration to commit to powering 20 percent of their campus with solar by 2020. Today, that campus, along with every other community college in Los Angeles and the entire University of California System has committed to powering their campus with 100 percent renewable energy. Likewise, in the United States over the past ten years, renewable energy’s growth has surpassed even our wildest projections. The progress we’ve seen to date gives me the confidence to continue to advance bold goals.
1014: In an ideal world, what more do you think should be done to address climate change and the protection of the environment on the local, regional, and global level?
Johanna Neumann: In an ideal world, at every level of our society, we would recognize the abundance of the world around us and manage ourselves accordingly.
After all, we are living in times of unparalleled material abundance. Two hundred years ago, the problems that society grappled with were driven by scarcity - not having enough food, fuel or housing to survive. That is no longer the case. Globally, we produce enough food to feed everyone. We have enough textiles to clothe everyone. The equitable distribution of those resources still presents a challenge, but the reality is that globally, we have enough stuff.
Our lives are no longer defined by material scarcity. And in fact, the opposite is becoming true. The overproduction of stuff that we don’t need is leading to many of the most serious environmental problems we face.
Take for instance, the way we produce and consume energy. Numerous studies indicate that we have the technology to harness the power of the sun and wind to operate every aspect of modern society. And yet we continue to burn fossil fuels that destroy the resources that we need to survive - like clean air and clean water - to produce energy, much of which we end up wasting through inefficient appliances, drafty windows and other wasteful practices.
Another example is single-use plastics. A massive “island” of plastic four times the size of Germany is swirling in the Pacific Ocean. Nine out of 10 seabirds have plastic in their digestive tracts and many are malnourished and dying because of it. Yet the plastics industry is still pumping out single-use plastics at record levels even though the short-term convenience of plastic bags or bottles doesn’t come close to justifying the long-term consequences of the pollution.
We need to recognize that yesterday’s barriers can disappear, and that building a cleaner, greener future will require new ideas and action. This action can come in many forms and at every level of society, from Washington DC, to states, to localities to boardrooms.