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

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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The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

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