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5 of the Most Important Earth Days in Its 50-Year History

A display commemorates the 25th Earth Day in Washington, DC on April 22, 1995. Jeffrey Markowitz / Sygma via Getty Images

This April 22, Earth Day turns 50.

The world's largest secular holiday approaches its golden anniversary in the shadow of two global crises. This year's day is dedicated to climate action, and the celebration has moved online in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Earth Day has a history of uniting people around the world to solve the major problems facing our planet. Here's a look back on some of the most important Earth Days in the celebration's 50-year history and what they helped accomplish.

1970: The First Earth Day Sprouts a Movement

By 1970, decades of rampant pollution had dirtied America's air, set rivers on fire and led to major disasters like the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. So on April 22 of that year, 20 million Americans, or 10 percent of the U.S. population, came out to demand a clean, healthy environment. The day had many organizers, but the idea came from Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a staunch environmentalist.

"The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy," Nelson said, according to History, "and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda."

He succeeded. The day is widely credited with encouraging the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

1990: Earth Day Spreads Earth-Wide

One of the original Earth Day organizers and Earth Day Network founder Denis Hayes was asked by a coalition of environmental leaders to organize a big event for the day's 20th anniversary. Hayes told TIME in 2019 that the 1990 Earth Day was "probably the second most important Earth Day."

In some ways, Hayes conceded, the day was not a success. It tried to raise awareness about climate change and the need for renewable energy, but without a groundswell of popular concern around those issues.

"We were trying to create a wave from basically nothing but intellectual discourse," Hayes told TIME. "Did we succeed? The answer to that nearly 30 years later is pretty obvious, though I'm not sure there was a way it could succeed."

However, the day did "[give] birth to what is known as the modern Earth Day movement," as The Years Project put it. The day was celebrated by 200 million people in 141 countries, according to the Earth Day Network. It raised global awareness about recycling and helped lead to the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

2010: Earth Day Launches a Billion Acts of Green

Earth Day continued to grow through the new millennium and continued to push for climate action and clean energy. On its 40th anniversary, it gathered more than 250,000 people in Washington, DC for a climate rally, according to the Earth Day Network. Internationally, the day was celebrated in 192 countries. It coincided with the World People's Conference on Climate Change held in Cochabamba, Bolivia and saw the first community trash pick-up in Kolkata, India, as National Geographic reported at the time.

The Earth Day Network channeled that energy into launching A Billion Acts of Green®, which it says is the "world's largest environmental service campaign." The organizers asked participants to do "just one thing that will help our planet," from making their homes more energy efficient to biking to work. The initiative is still going strong, with now more than two billion acts registered.

"The idea that we can all belong to something is what's exciting people and what's making them want to join," Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers told National Geographic when the campaign was first launched.

2016: The Paris Agreement Is Signed

In a testament to the symbolic power of Earth Day, then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chose it as the day when world leaders would sign the landmark Paris climate agreement at a ceremony in New York City.

The Paris agreement was the first international agreement pledging all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as BBC News reported when it was first announced in December 2015. Countries committed to limiting global warming to "well below" two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an ideal aim of stopping warming at 1.5 degrees. The Earth Day ceremony saw 175 leaders sign the landmark agreement — the most to ever sign an international agreement in one day.

"The participation by so many countries today, and the attendance by so many world leaders, leaves no doubt that the world is determined to take climate action," Ban said at the time.

While the agreement has been undercut somewhat by President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. and the fact that, if countries stick to their current pledges, we will still see 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming, its record-setting Earth Day signing is still an important reminder that world leaders can choose to come together for the sake of our common home.

2020: Earth Day Fights for Climate Action on Lockdown

As Earth Day's 50th anniversary approached, organizers found themselves in a situation not unlike the one that led to the first Earth Day.

"The social and cultural environments we saw in 1970 are rising up again today — a fresh and frustrated generation of young people are refusing to settle for platitudes, instead taking to the streets by the millions to demand a new way forward. Digital and social media are bringing these conversations, protests, strikes and mobilizations to a global audience, uniting a concerned citizenry as never before and catalyzing generations to join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced," the Earth Day Network reflected.

Hayes said he wanted Earth Day 2020 to do for climate change what Earth Day 1970 had done for other environmental issues. But then organizers were faced with something they did not have to deal with 50 years ago — the coronavirus pandemic.

With more than a third of the planet under some form of lockdown order, Earth Day is going digital for the first time in its history, with 24 hours of virtual talks, action calls, teach-ins and performances. Find an event here or register your own to be part of Earth Day's ongoing history.

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