How Earth Day United a Nation in Crisis and Sparked a Global Movement
By Amanda Paulson
When Denis Hayes decided to join an environmental teach-in, he had no idea he was about to help launch a movement that would endure for half a century.
The year was 1969 and "there were things that were ripping America apart," Mr. Hayes recalls. He was a student at Harvard University and headed to Washington to offer help to Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who was planning the first Earth Day, scheduled for April 22, 1970.
Before long, Mr. Hayes had dropped out of Harvard and moved to Washington to be the organizer of the event. He found a surge of people eager "to find some things that hold us together," he says.
And it worked. Some 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day events, held in nearly every town and city in the United States. At the marquee event in New York, Fifth Avenue closed from Union Square to Central Park.
"I had never imagined addressing a crowd that would be so large I could not see the far edge of it," recalls Mr. Hayes. "It was like looking out at the ocean. The crowd extended over the horizon."
That moment was just the beginning. What started as a single day grew into a sustained movement that drew both Democrats and Republicans and launched a slew of legislation, from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to the adoption of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Superfund program.
The 50th Earth Day celebration this spring is global and – due to the emergence of COVID-19 – virtual. The focus of the event has shifted, from pollution to climate change. But the spirit remains the same.
Mr. Hayes recently looked back on that first Earth Day, its legacy, and lessons for today's activists. Here are some excerpts, edited for clarity and length, from that interview.
What Did the First Earth Day Change?
If you had gone around the United States in 1969 asking people what they thought about the environment, people mostly wouldn't have known what you were talking about. By the middle of 1970, something like 75% of all Americans called themselves environmentalists. There was a set of values – that had sort of been there and implicit, but not wrapped up together in any kind of definable boundary – that came to reshape the culture.
I grew up in a community that was dominated by a paper mill. It cranked out uncontrolled sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that became acid rain. And that was thought of as the smell of prosperity. We changed that.
There are now people who have chosen to live in a particular kind of location for environmental reasons. Who chose their automobile or bus commute for environmental reasons. There are people like me who chose to have one child for environmental reasons. Politicians got elected and defeated for environmental reasons. All of that happened in a relatively clear chain in the aftermath of Earth Day.
What Parallels Do You See With Today’s Environmental Activism?
In 1970, if you looked at a smokestack, you saw really ugly clouds of smoke coming out. With climate, of course, with CO2 – you can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't taste it. But what you can see are the effects of it. All of that makes it tangible and visible to people in a way that allows you to have a fair amount of momentum. And then, of course, you have the kids.
Social movements are almost always driven by youth. Historically, young has meant 20 or 22 or 25. Today, it's often 15 or 16. They have this intuitive sense that the world is getting bad at an accelerating pace and they want to do what they can to stop it. Part of what we're doing with Earth Day is answering the question Greta [Thunberg] always asks: Where are the adults?
We're going to be throwing some adults into the mix, who have filed some lawsuits, who know how to prepare legislation, who have worked with the technologies and know what you can do and what would be defying scientific principles. It has to be a broad societal effort, but to get the whole thing launched, as it has been, by the very young has really been a godsend.
What Role Can Environmental Activists of the 1970s Play Today?
I don't want to overstate this, but there was an idealism that was pretty widespread in the '60s and '70s. And those of us who were there then have now moved into positions of some power, some influence. Some have retired and now have some leisure. I'm seeing a fair amount of evidence that that idealism is starting to resurface.
That idealism came from the young and is beginning to spread to the old, to the seniors who have this fair amount of remaining authority over the economy. It's been less effective with the politicians. But where in 1970 it was environmentalists working hand in glove with politicians to try to put some constraints on the irresponsible behavior of the corporations, there's a trace now of environmentalists working with the most enlightened corporate leaders to put some constraints around the politicians.
How Do You Find Optimism?
My biggest worry about the kids is that most of what they're facing are these gloom-and-doom stories, which are all very real. But they have to also recognize that there are well-founded reasons for hope.
You will never be able to generate a movement if you don't have hope. You can't have a civil rights movement unless you think you can prevail. You won't have an anti-war movement unless you think you can end the war.
And you won't have a climate movement unless you can build a safe, healthy, resilient, beautiful society that isn't dependent on fossil fuels.
A number of things have changed faster than anybody thought was possible: the rapidly declining costs of solar technologies, of offshore wind technologies, of battery technologies, of electric vehicles.
Hope is often an act of will. I have a daughter, and my daughter has a daughter, so now I have a granddaughter. I can't dodder off into my twilight years hopeless. There has to be an ability to have society make the necessary choices.
This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- 5 of the Most Important Earth Days in Its 50-Year History - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Environmental Victories to Inspire You This Earth Day - EcoWatch ›
- 3 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day All Through April (on Lockdown, of ... ›
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›