Earth Day and beyond
More than 50 years after the first Earth Day, Stanford experts discuss the experiences that inspire people to learn and care about the environment and take action.
Late in January 1969, an enormous oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara slathered 35 miles of shoreline with crude oil and killed thousands of birds, fish, and sea mammals. Just a few months later, debris and pollution in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames. The two events helped to inspire millions of people to participate in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 and galvanize the modern environmental movement.
“The Santa Barbara oil spill grabbed the nation’s attention at a moment when people were available to pay attention to the drama. That event was sufficient to wake people up to the fact that perhaps human interaction with the natural environment is not all good, and that we need to do our part to protect nature if we’re going to put it at risk,” said Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences whose research includes studies of public opinion on climate change and the environment.
Today, Earth Day is commemorated in more than 190 countries with rallies, festivals, cleanup projects, conferences, citizen science projects, and other activities. “Earth Day provides us with opportunities to think about positive paths forward so people feel excited to get up and do something, while letting people know that there are challenges we face,” said Stanford environmental behavioral scientist Nicole Ardoin, who researches individual and collective environmental behaviors and whose teaching covers topics such as the thinking, social context, and motivations that lead people to take actions related to the environment. “It’s a razor’s edge between hope and fear, and optimism and pessimism, and how much of each is needed to motivate people to engage.”
Here, Ardoin, Krosnick, and Earth system science assistant professor Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, who studies how and why people choose to address climate impacts, discuss some of the psychology behind environmental decisions, the motivation for their own work, connections to the inaugural Earth Day, and more.
About the experts
Nicole Ardoin is the Sykes Family Director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) and an associate professor in the social sciences division of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. She is also a senior fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and an affiliate at Precourt Institute for Energy.
Jon Krosnick is the Frederic O. Glover Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. He is a professor of communication, political science, and (by courtesy) of psychology and a professor in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability’s social sciences division.
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi is an assistant professor in the Department of Earth System Science and the social sciences division of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. She is also a Center Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
What types of environmental learning initiatives tend to have the most impact long-term?
Ardoin: Learning initiatives that are more successful encourage us to think of ourselves as part of a broader movement. We are all like nesting dolls, existing within many layers of sociocultural, historical, political, ecological contexts. Every action that we take is in response to other people, and to the ecosystem around us.
This way of thinking about environmental learning represents a shift from 20 or 30 years ago, when there was more focus on individual learning and behavior change. A lot of the educational and behavior-change campaigns at that time emphasized actions like getting people to change a single light bulb or think primarily about their own recycling behaviors. Now we recognize those smaller, more independent actions are really challenging to maintain over time and, most importantly, to feel like you’re actually making a difference.
Solving wicked problems – meaning, complex systems challenges where there’s not a single, linear pathway toward change or solutions – requires collective action. In our lab, the Social Ecology Lab, we try to understand the complex processes that shift people from focusing on singular actions to thinking about what kind of person they are or aspire to be, especially as part of a broader community. We’re interested in exploring the conditions under which people develop a mindset such as, “I’m the kind of person who takes the environment into account, or thinks about my community, or imagines the future for the youth in my life when I make a decision.”
In what ways does your group’s focus on communities and collective action relate to the roots of the environmental education field in the 1970s, around the time of the inaugural Earth Day?
Ardoin: One of the earliest formal definitions of environmental education came from a declaration adopted by the United Nations in 1977, known as the Tbilisi Declaration. What I love about the definition in that document and the discussion that occurred around it is that it emphasized the lifelong, life-wide nature of environmental education. It didn’t imagine environmental education as only occurring in schools, or only for youth.
As a colleague of mine likes to say, if we think of environmental education as something you only do once in fifth grade, and then you’re done with it, that means we’re left with outdated solutions to constantly changing problems. Throughout our lives, we need to be learning about the environment and sustainability challenges, and engaging with our neighbors, our policymakers, our colleagues about the state of science and the state of our policies.
Jon Krosnick, your surveys have found the portion of Americans who consider global warming to be of great personal importance (the “issue public”) reached an all time high of 25 percent in 2020. That’s an unusually large group compared to those who are passionate about other public policy issues. Can you explain why?
Krosnick: Every time we have another hurricane, and every time we have another wildfire, the media have the opportunity to talk about climate change. People are experiencing warmer temperatures and extreme weather events. So those experiences come together, leading more and more individuals to see this issue is affecting them or people they care about.
People don’t pop in and out of issue publics. Being in an issue public is like being married to the issue. It involves cognitive, emotional, and behavioral commitment. People don’t make commitments lightly or fleetingly. Issue public membership is driven by: Am I going to be personally affected by this? Are people I care about going to be personally affected by this? Do people I identify with care about it? And is this issue linked to my values? Thus, passion results from an issue like climate change becoming linked in a person’s mind to their self-interest, social identifications, or values.
What factors motivate individuals and communities to respond to climate impacts?
Wong-Parodi: People make changes when they’ve had a bad experience with an impact (such as an extreme weather event), they attribute that experience to climate change, and they have the resources and support to make the change. A sense of self-efficacy and response-efficacy are also important. That’s the feeling that I can effectively take action, and that the action I want to take will reduce risk.
As a society, we will need to adapt to reduce human suffering and disruption to lives and livelihoods. Scientific research has shown that warming will continue even if emissions decline, and hence impacts will continue to worsen. This is especially acute in areas where communities may experience the “first and worst” of climate impacts and have access to fewer resources to manage risks.
What drives you to try to understand what Americans think about global warming, and the connection between their opinions and their voting behavior?
Krosnick: I got involved in studying this topic in 1995, because an economic consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts contacted me and said, “We’d like to invite you to a little conference for a few psychologists to talk about global warming.” My response was, “What’s that?” And they said, “don’t worry, we’ll have an MIT climate scientist educate you all, and then you can tell us your thoughts. Would you come?”
That meeting was sponsored by EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. They were interested in why some people were aware of and concerned about climate change, and lots of people were not. I had a lot of expertise studying why some Americans become passionate about particular political issues, so it was natural for me to explore the same phenomenon regarding global warming.
At the end of the two days in Cambridge, our hosts asked whether any of us would like to take some money to do research on this topic? I put up my hand, and that launched almost 30 years investigating these issues. My first survey produced jaw-dropping results, and I was immediately addicted. I was surprised that a huge majority of Americans believed that climate change was happening and was a threat, when I had known nothing about it.
As I did more surveys over the years, I saw consistency of public opinion over time, despite hundreds of millions of dollars having been spent to try to push Americans’ views in one direction or another, trying to activate the American public on this issue – none of it having any success. I couldn’t be more excited to do our next survey, which we will launch very soon, to continue to track Americans’ perspectives.
Is the heightened attention to environmental stewardship during Earth Week each year something that makes a meaningful difference for individuals, communities, or societies?
Wong-Parodi: I think the increased attention can be helpful, especially among younger adults and school aged children (my own observation) as it offers a time for meaningful pause, learning, and reflection.
Krosnick: It’s easy to be distracted by the events unfolding in our personal lives and in the huge news stories dominating the front pages. Earth Day’s media focus provides an opportunity for everyone to pause and think about nature, from whatever perspective is meaningful to them, whether it’s having wild animals to watch, hikes in the woods to enjoy, or resources to power contemporary societies. Earth Day is a moment for appreciation and to be reminded of what the planet does for us all.
Ardoin: The attention from Earth Day might be helpful in lighting a spark for some people. Whether or not that goes beyond a one-time action and leads to real change in people’s everyday lives and core identities, however, depends on social context. People who make an initial commitment due to Earth Day are more likely to follow through and sustain that commitment over time if they do so along with friends, family members, and others in their community. Participating in collective actions is not only more likely to be sustained over time, it’s also more fun and impactful.
Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences
Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability