By Anders Lorenzen
In 1969 in Santa Barbara, the US, a devastating oil spill which unleashed over three million gallons of oil and killed more than 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, became the stepping stone to the world’s first Earth Day event in 1970. The event now takes place every year on the 22nd of April and is now celebrated in 192 countries across the world. In the US it is even a public holiday that encourages everyone to get involved with environmental protection.
Some would argue that Earth Day was the beginning of the modern environmental movement, others say that this started some years earlier with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. Either way, the first Earth Day led to the enactment of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
Many of the issues dominating the 1970 Earth Day are still in focus today, such as the dominance of the fossil fuel industry, but others are more recent such as the climate crisis and the loss of nature and biodiversity. It wasn’t until 1988 that climate change became a key issue when Dr James Hansen testified to Congress on the issue.
Earth Day moved onto the world stage in the 1990s and it is believed it paved the way for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Below are some examples of how far we have come since the first Earth Day in 1970.
When the first Earth Day was held in 1970 renewable energies (not including hydropower) were a pipedream, largely expensive and inefficient, especially in the case of solar, and it was only some rich people who could afford to install them. It was not until the mid-1980’s that the US started to measure wind power production, and about a decade later they did the same solar. Today wind and solar’s share of electricity consumption is 13% and 5% respectively in the US and in many other countries around the world even higher. As technology has advanced, the efficiency has increased and the costs have decreased. It is now possible to talk about a fossil fuel-free future, something that was inconceivable in 1970.
Scientific research and knowledge about climate change, nature, biodiversity and technology advances just keep getting stronger. We now know much more about the natural world, how fossil fuel impacts the climate and what we need to do than to mitigate those challenges than ever before. Despite fears about cuts to scientific funding, academic institutions keep releasing more and more scientific reports with many of those featuring climate change and the natural world.
Mobilisation to tackle the climate crisis and protect the environment has never been greater. We have come far since the ’60s and ‘70s where just a few dedicated environmentalists and politicians warned about these issues. Environmental activism has literally gone mainstream across governance and society as well as news, information and education. The fact that many school children around the world are going on climate strikes each Friday as well as telling their parents to do more is clearly because education and information on the issues have become so good; they are also linked to other issues such as the economy and health which makes people much more likely to act upon them.
The fight is not over yet
All of this does of course not mean that the fight is over, far from it. There are still many things that need to be accomplished if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and nature breakdown. But the difference is that we now have far better knowledge and tools necessary to tackle it.
Earth Day organizers had undoubtedly imagined a somehow different Earth Day 50th anniversary than the one we are having today; due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, all anniversary events have moved online. But this has the power to demonstrate just how many things are possible digitally today and will send a strong signal to move things online when possible and in turn, reduce emissions. Yet another move which was not possible in 1970.
This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.