Reflections on Earth Day: A Better World is Possible and Damned Well Worth Fighting For

April 21, 2020 | 8:58 am
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, when the youth climate movement will lead the first and largest mass online mobilization in human history. I asked some UCS colleagues to reflect on what Earth Day has meant to them and could mean for the common future of people and the planet. Some of us (myself, Peter Frumhoff, and Roger Stephenson) remember the very first Earth Day in 1970, which spurred us to action and called us to our life’s work. Adrienne Hollis examines how the Earth Day movement has too often missed an opportunity to work with the most vulnerable communities in the cause of environmental justice, and notes that the youth movement is demanding change. And Erika Spanger-Siegfried interviews two of today’s youth activists who are not letting a global pandemic or political intransigence stop them in their quest for a livable future.

In April 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day, as a confluence of environmental disasters — chronic air pollution, the effects of DDT on birds and other wildlife, a massive oil spill off of Santa Barbara, and the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland catching on fire, to mention just a few – touched a nerve in the body politic. Congress and President Nixon responded by enacting a host of new laws including the Clean Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Endangered Species Act, strengthening the Clean Air Act, and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.

On that first Earth Day, I joined other students from my high school in rural Vermont for a march along the Connecticut River Valley on Interstate 91, picking up roadside trash along the way. Fifteen years later, I was in Washington, DC, serving as Executive Director of Environmental Action, the group that organized the massive 1970 Earth Day demonstrations. In a special 15th anniversary issue of EA’s bimonthly magazine, I observed that despite all the laws that had been passed and the progress that had been made since 1970, “acid rain still ravages our lakes and forests. Our industries generate more and more hazardous waste and continue to dump it in dangerous ways. Widespread deforestation and climate change threaten the entire planet.” Looking forward to Earth Day 2000, I warned that “the task confronting us is daunting: making our society’s most powerful institutions, the corporations, accountable.”

That task is even more daunting today, as armies of lobbyists, enormous marketing and public relations war chests, and a dysfunctional and corrupt campaign finance system have combined to give polluting corporations and their trade associations enormous sway over federal and state policymaking. But public awareness and concern about climate change and other threats to our health and well-being is growing, youth climate activism has surged over the last few years, and more and more investors are pressing companies to take bold action on climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, as both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis continue to highlight the shortcomings of our current policies and politics, there is strong alignment amongst those advocating for workers’ rights, environmental justice, economic fairness and opportunity, and environmental protection and conservation on the need for transformational changes that put people first.  There is also tremendous resilience and creativity in this increasingly interconnected movement, as demonstrated by the organizers of Earth Day Live, the three-day livestream mobilization starting on April 22.

While I’m older (and considerably greyer) than I was on that first Earth Day in 1970, I’m still as convinced as ever that a better world is possible – and is damned well worth fighting for.

Peter Frumhoff is director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at UCS

Earth Day 1970. I was a thirteen-year old living in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles. I grew up less than a mile from the hills separating the Valley from downtown LA, but most days the smog was so thick I could not see them. My lungs ached after running the mile in gym class.

Now, fifty years later, the number of cars and trucks on LA streets and freeways and the number of miles they are driven each day are far greater. But the thick layers of smog that fouled the city of my youth have greatly diminished.

Los Angeles, 1973

That didn’t just happen on its own.

The environmental movement that rose to national prominence on that first Earth Day galvanized bipartisan support for the Clean Air Act of 1970 and other federal and state policies that dramatically improved air quality and public health in my hometown and across the nation. It drew upon robust research led by Cal Tech biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit, research that showed how smog formed when uncombusted hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicle tailpipes reacted with sunlight.

And it overcame tremendous opposition from the oil and automobile industries. Using the same disinformation tactics as the tobacco industry, they tried hard to undermine public support for clean air policies by attacking Haagen-Smit’s research and besmirching his reputation.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is an opportunity to reflect on the power of science and environmental advocacy – to acknowledge and appreciate, but not to rest upon the gains that have been made. There remain vast inequities in who benefits from current environmental protections and who does not. And the gains that have been made are now under grave threat.

The bipartisan support for science-based environmental regulation has largely vanished. Polluting industries and their allies in Congress and the Trump Administration are working feverishly to roll back science-based environmental protections and to stall climate action – doubling down on rollbacks, perhaps hoping that our attention is diverted as we confront the pandemic.

We must not allow them to succeed.

Join me in supporting the Earth Day Live climate strikes and make your voice heard for science-based climate action.

Brenda Ekwurzel is director of climate science in the Climate and Energy program at UCS

Let’s check the pulse of the Earth and compare the first Earth Day with the 50th, in terms of three climate change indicators: atmospheric carbon dioxide, global sea level and Arctic sea ice volume.

Atmospheric CO2 measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, increased from the 1970 April monthly average of around 327 parts per million (ppm) to the daily average on April 14, 2020 of 416 ppm.

Global sea levels have risen around 4.8 inches in the past 50 years, if we calculate that according to tide stations, in 1970 seas had already risen 4 to 5.5 inches above the 1880 baseline, and satellite data shows that 2019 sea level was 9.5 inches above the 1880 level.

Arctic sea ice volume decreased from around 35,000 cubic kilometers in April 1970, based on historical reconstruction, to around 22,300 cubic kilometers in 2019.

Over the next 50 Earth Days, it is clear that we must dramatically reduce heat-trapping emissions to slow the pace of change.

Roger Stephenson is the Northeast regional advocacy director in the Climate and Energy program at UCS

Near the first anniversary of the first Earth Day, my high school classmate Bruce Beque started recycling newspapers at Ridgewood High School. Bruce is a pretty clever guy and Tom Sawyer’d me into helping. It was hard work—we were hauling and baling paper in the dark recesses of a tractor trailer. It was my first inkling that there were real responsibilities to preserving the natural world I was growing to love, and real contributions I could make.

I recently learned that Bruce is a UCS supporter and we got to reconnect after all this time. Today Bruce is a nurse in Maine, and like the work of all health professionals, his responsibilities likely include treating people suffering from COVID-19. I always think of Bruce as “one person who makes a difference” in my life and the lives of many others.

Adrienne Hollis is the senior climate justice and health scientist at UCS

Earth Day focuses on creating a healthier environment by protecting the planet and resources. During this 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is incumbent upon us to focus on communities disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. These are the people who live in the unhealthiest environments and who, in most cases, lack access to even the most basic resources. They are suffering most from COVID-19 too, likely in part because of poor environmental quality.

Historically, Earth Day has not focused on environmental justice and the needs of our most vulnerable communities. That those communities are additionally threatened by climate change is a fact. Climate change affects environmental justice, Indigenous, and people of color communities first and worst. It intensifies already detrimental conditions. It is indeed a threat multiplier.

Marchers at the Peoples’ March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice, April 2017.

Earth Day was created to demonstrate support for environmental protections. We should use this significant anniversary to reexamine that concept and to ensure that all people—especially environmental justice communities, Indigenous Peoples and communities of color—enjoy a safe and environmentally sound world. I am encouraged by the youth climate movement’s emphasis on Black and Indigenous leadership in calling for a society rooted in sustainability and justice during their three-day livestream mobilization.

Erika Spanger-Siegfried is the lead climate analyst in the UCS Climate and Energy program

I was born the same year as Earth Day, and like many Gen Xers who have become parents, my Gen Z daughters and their friends have become part of the youth climate movement. The year I graduated from high school, climate change was newly in the news – a new threat, the big one. I was certain we would solve it, but you know how that went.

Austin Dowd and her socks have something to say, September 2019 Youth Climate Strike.

This year, my eldest is graduating high school. Isolated at home with no graduation in sight, I expect some malaise and disillusionment from these people. But when I asked them what they’re thinking amidst COVID-19, with Earth Day around the corner and just… all of it, they did what they do: inspire.

“The coronavirus is pointing out everything that we need to change”, says 17-year old Betta Tham, class of 2020, “the high uneven distribution of pollution that harms black and brown people, the healthcare system, the classism and disrespect and disregard for the safety of lower-income workers, the lack of help for those who need shelter and food and water.”

Her fellow 17-year old, Austin Dowd, shared similar thoughts. ““Right now, it’s difficult to think about the future. How can I make a positive impact while I’m stuck at home?” But a path has opened up, she finds, to help amplify the truth of environmental racism that COVID-19 has laid bare. “Seeing cold, hard facts about Black people accounting for 70% of Chicago’s COVID-19 deaths is opening previously unheard-of conversations about how income inequality affects public health and about the reality of environmental racism.”

As she and Betta see it, to truly overcome the climate crisis, we need climate and environmental justice at the center of our solutions, and an appreciation of environmental racism by mainstream America is key to this.

For them, climate activism has never been more crucial. “Not only do we need to talk about environmental and climate justice right now, we must elect representatives that will fight for those things as the economy is rebuilt”, says Austin. They are not fearless; they worry that politicians will ignore the climate while trying to restore the economy, and that the strain of COVID-19 will make people forget about each other and what really matters. But they’re hopeful.

“I know first-time voters like me will show up in the fall to elect pro-climate candidates” says Austin. “I’m inspired by my generation, and our homebound activism amidst this pandemic has only strengthened that.”

I see how hard these young women and their peers are working to make this Earth Day matter at this strange, sad, challenging time.

Happy birthday, Earth Day. You’re in good hands.