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Earth Day Will Fight for Climate Action on Its 50th Anniversary

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A child playing with a ball from planet earth during Extinction Rebellion rally on April 18 in London, England. Brais G. Rouco / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Earth Day 2019 just passed, but planning has already begun for Earth Day 2020, and it's going to be a big deal.


The Earth Day Network announced on this year's Earth Day that the next year's celebration, which coincides with the day's 50th anniversary, will focus on climate action.

"Climate change represents the biggest challenge to humanity's future and the systems that make our world habitable," Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers said in a press release. "2020 has to be the year of transformative change that seizes the positive action underway and makes it bigger and bolder worldwide."

A major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last year found that greenhouse gas emissions needed to fall to 45 percent of 2010 levels in order for the world to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That means world leaders now have 11 years to make changes that the IPCC said had "no documented historic precedent."

Ahead of its 50th anniversary, the Earth Day Network seeks to encourage change through a series of initiatives.

1. Vote Earth: In 2019 and 2020, there will be more than 60 major national elections around the world. This initiative encourages voters to engage with candidates on climate and vote for the would-be leaders with the best environmental policies. It also seeks to register one million voters around Earth Day 2020.

2. Earth Challenge 2020: This initiative seeks to organize the largest ever citizen scientist initiative to report on environmental health. An Earth Challenge 2020 app will be launched at the start of the year.

3. Billion Acts of Green: The network will update its landmark Billion Acts of Green program with a goal of 3.5 billion environmentally-friendly acts completed and logged in 2020.

4. Great Global Cleanup: The Earth Day Network plans to learn from cleanups in U.S. cities this year to scale up towards what it hopes will be the largest environmental volunteer event ever, coordinating people around the world to pick up billions of pieces of trash.

Denis Hayes, the lead organizer of the original Earth Day, told reporters at the National Press Club Monday that he was optimistic about Earth Day 2020, and the planet's overall future.

"2020 will be for climate what 1970 was for other environmental issues," Hayes said, as ThinkProgress reported.

Heyes said he was especially encouraged by the youth activism around climate, such as the school strikes inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement's push for a Green New Deal in the U.S. Hayes acknowledged that President Donald Trump had "appointed the two worst EPA administrators in history," but thought the tide would turn against his pro-fossil-fuel policies.

"I'm confident that the end is in sight. When conditions are right, people are ready to demand change, and America can turn on a dime," Hayes said, as Voice of America reported.

This was partly born out by Hayes own experience with the original Earth Day, which he helped organize when he was just 25 years old, ThinkProgress reported.

After 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day, "powerful laws that had been unthinkable in 1969 became unstoppable by the end of 1970," he said.

Those laws included the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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