Earth Day commemorates the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. It is a time where activists, leaders, environmental professionals, and laymen showcase their commitment to working towards a healthier environment. Yet, even after half a century’s worth of annual Earth Days, our nation is still divided about advocating for climate reform.
Every year around Earth Day, there is a flurry of social media posts bringing awareness to environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation, and poor air and water quality; however, as momentum for these issues dies out in the weeks following Earth Day, it becomes clear that many only engage with environmentalism in the month of April.
Although the annual burst of attention environmentalism receives during April is significant, the short-lived nature of climate engagement speaks to a larger issue about how environmentalism has been historically framed as an abstract fight that no one can relate to. The issue is not whether most people know about the climate crisis; rather, improving climate engagement concerns itself with one seemingly simple question: how do we make people care about this existential threat?
The answer to this question has to do with effective and relevant climate communication. For years, scientists have published groundbreaking findings that show the severe impacts of climate change. For instance, researchers from Harvard University recently published findings that suggested over 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, which means air pollution from fossil fuels was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. In addition to the impact that worsening air quality has on our health, increasing chemical exposures are damaging the reproductive health of our citizens. According to Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, sperm count has dropped almost 60 percent since 1973. Her team has suggested that multiple environmental and lifestyle influences, both prenatally and in adult life, may be associated with the declining sperm counts. Particularly, exposure to endocrine disruptors from fossil fuels and pesticides has led to waning male reproductive health.
Although significant on their own merits, research studies are only the first piece of the puzzle when working to improve climate engagement. Effective climate communication must go beyond solely relying on jaw-dropping statistics and research findings; instead, to build greater interest in climate issues, we ought to include storytelling that shows how real-people have been impacted by climate issues. Many BIPOC and low-income communities have been facing climate instability for years now, an experience that has been historically sidelined by the environmental movement. These experiences have manifested in the form of health inequity, housing instability, and larger environmental injustice.
By the same token, worsening air pollution and declines in reproductive health have left tens of thousands of people witnessing the impacts of these scientists’ findings first-hand. Men and women who have had their dreams of being parents cut short. People who have watched their children struggle to breathe due to increasing air pollution. Minority families who have lost loved ones due to their environment exacerbating COVID-19-related illness.
People’s experiences and unique narratives matter, and we must make an active effort to amplify their voices to improve engagement in the climate movement. If willing, these people may be more impactful in educating others about the actual risks associated with climate catastrophe than the movement solely depending on the persuasiveness of scientific jargon and academic language.
Environmentalism is not and has never been a fight to preserve the health and wellbeing of just our planet. It is a movement that aims to safeguard the health and wellness of our people, and the only way we can do that is by showing people that environmental issues are human issues that impact our quality of lives. They impact our dreams, they impact our current experiences, and they quite literally impact the fate of our communities going forward.
This Earth Day, we have the chance to shift the needle in the right direction, but we can’t do it with the same strategies we’ve been using before. We need effective climate communication centered on human experience and scientific understanding to build a more equitable and healthy world. Let’s use environmental storytelling to change the game together.
Rohan Arora is a climate health activist and the executive director of The Community Check-Up, a national environmental health organization working to empower youth to become changemakers in their local communities.