As an environmental lawyer and CEO of a national conservation organization, I continue to grapple with three political realities facing the environmental community:

  • We are electorally weak. The environment was largely a non-issue during the last US election; there were no questions about climate change during the 2016 presidential debates. Environmental issues regularly rank below societal and economic priorities, and the hard truth is that most voters simply do not cast ballots with the environment top-of-mind. 
  • Environmental issues have become polarizing. Polling from 2016 found that global warming is more polarizing than abortion or gay marriage, and many Americans view environmentalists as part of the liberal, elite establishment.  
  • Environmental issues have become partisan. While some environmental groups—including Ocean Conservancy, which I lead—take great pains to work with members of both parties, it’s impossible to escape the reality that environmental policies are championed largely by Democrats and opposed largely by Republicans.

To overcome these realities, environmental organizations must confront two questions. The first is: How can we play effective defense to conserve as many sound environmental policies as possible from the past 50 years? The community is now spending much of its time and resources tackling this. For example, at Ocean Conservancy, we are expanding our defense work through coalition-building, providing people and businesses that have a professional or personal stake in a healthy ocean—such as fishermen, sailors, and representatives from the shipping industry—with tools to help make their voices heard when important policy decisions are at hand. For example, the federal budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is at risk of a nearly $1 billion cut. Last spring, more than 370 of these people and businesses sent a letter to Congress, urging the rejection of proposed cuts to NOAA’s climate science, external research, coastal management, and coastal resilience programs. 

The second question is more fundamental: How did we end up in this position to begin with, and is there a way out? One pathway we can look to is the successful fight for marriage equality in the United States, which faced many of the same obstacles. Changing Americans’ hearts and minds required years of work and a deliberate strategy, as well as honest self-evaluation by the LGBTQ advocacy community, to turn the tide. Now is the moment for the environmental community to take a page from Freedom to Marry’s strategy, which focused on three areas:

  • Moving out of its comfort zone and become political enough to build power
  • Getting philanthropic leaders to join together to fund robust education and advocacy campaigns designed to win 
  • Conducting the right research with people outside the movement’s base to find out what moves them 

For many years, much of the polling on environmental issues focused on people’s willingness to care or act on a particular issue. Collecting that information is still important, but we want to know more about the underlying motivation that drives people to connect with and steward nature. Regardless of political affiliations, what about conservation can bring us together? At Ocean Conservancy, we are undertaking a research project to get at the heart of what people value about stewardship and conservation. Our desire is to start a new conversation about ocean protection that invites a broader swath of the public to participate in environmental decisions that impact their communities. 

A group of people watching as a pod of dolphins pass by Emerson Point, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy)

Last spring, we conducted a scan of the past 10 years of environmental polling. The data showed that Americans largely support government regulations to protect the environment but that support wanes in the face of a political dialogue that pits jobs against the environment. 

This summer, we conducted a national survey of 1,500 voters and found that, despite the political dialogue on climate and the environment, most Americans, including Republicans, personally identify as conservationists. This suggests that issues such as drinking water, clean air, and ocean protection are not quite as partisan as the dominant climate narrative would have us believe. Furthermore, the polling revealed a conservative-leaning segment of the voting public that prioritizes conservation—most notably the protection of the ocean and marine life. We are now looking to connect with those voters in a way that leads them to take action in support of the ocean conservation values they care about. 

 This moment in history—despite its challenges—has handed us a useful lesson: The conservation community needs to get back to basics:

Taking the long view. To succeed, the environmental community must find a way to return to our roots as a bipartisan movement that enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. As long as voters view environmental issues as highly partisan, the movement will continue to suffer from the nation’s increasingly drastic pendulum swings that seem to come with each new election cycle. Long-term success for the environment requires that we look beyond the immediate battles of today. We must become laser-focused on shaping a future where conservation is once again a widely held and expressed American value.

Broadening the base. There’s a path that taps into shared values across a broad political spectrum. We believe there is more that unites us in conserving our ocean, for example, than divides us, and that this pragmatic and optimistic approach will make conservation durable and long-lasting, regardless of who is in power. Identifying where and why we are failing to connect with many voters is the first important step

Listening. We tell children to put on their listening ears to navigate their world. The environmental movement needs to do the same, working with experts and community leaders and local grassroots groups to understand what America has to say about conservation, and then working together to advance meaningful change across local, state and federal fronts. Our research “listening exercise” is designed to include people in coastal states like Maine and Florida, who are potential supporters of ocean and coastal conservation issues, but who the movement has failed to reach. 

Doing unto others. It’s the golden rule for a reason. Data alone will not win hearts and minds, and we cannot restart a conversation unless we approach that dialogue with respect and empathy. Ocean Conservancy is seeking common ground because we believe that caring for each other, by caring for our environment, transcends party politics. We are working with Republican and Democratic senators, for example, on a bill that supports investment in the pervasive issue of marine debris. 

Looking outside. We can learn from successes and failures of campaigns outside the environmental context. The Freedom to Marry campaign is one we are striving to emulate at Ocean Conservancy. Another example is the conservation ethos that infuses the hunting, fishing, and angling communities. The sportsmen-led movement to protect public lands has successfully harnessed support from voters across the political spectrum who enjoy the use of land and natural resources. We can learn from these examples and apply them more broadly across the conservation community. 

We must commit ourselves to listening, learning, and bridging the divide that distances the environmental movement from people’s lives, and start a new conversation with America. The only way to win is by becoming “we” again.