climate change

Viewpoint: Forty-three years of the environmental movement

Having front stage as former US Vice-president Al Gore speaks at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

By Anders Lorenzen

This week I celebrated my forty-third birthday and took the opportunity to reflect on how far the environmental movement has come during that time.

The birth of the modern environmental movement

The 1960s and 1970s were the decades in which the modern environmental movement was born, kicking off with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. 

In the 1960s climate change was not really a significant concern, not even amongst environmentalists – this was despite the fact that the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896 was the first to claim that emissions from fossil fuels might eventually result in enhanced global warming. Instead, environmentalists were mainly concerned about the ozone layer, nuclear meltdown and chemical industrial pollution, the erosion of biodiversity and population explosion.

In 1968 one of the most iconic moments of the modern environmental movement occurred when the crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft took the first photograph of the Earth from space. “Earthrise” as the photo was named, became the iconic image of the environmental movement.

In 1970 the world’s first Earth Day was held in the US, but we had to wait until 1990 before the movement went global.

In 1977, two years before I was born, scientists from one of the world’s largest oil companies Exxon Mobil carried out a study on the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. The study found conclusive evidence that they were linked, however, as this was inconvenient for their business model they did not publish the study.

Four months before I was born, between February the 12th- 23rd 1979, the world’s first climate conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland. 

And on my birthday, the 20th of June 1979, then US President Jimmy Carter decided to deliver a strong climate and environmental statement by installing solar panels on the roof of The White House.  

In June 1979, atmospheric carbon stood at 339ppm, just below the 350ppm level scientists believe to be safe. Today that number is 420ppm and rising. It is estimated that in 1979 the world emitted 19.61 billion tonnes of CO2. In 2021 the world emitted 36.4 billion tonnes of CO2; nearly double that of 1979.

I was one year old when the first wind farm was built in New Hampshire, the US in 1980. Today, wind energy production is a global industry rivalling the fossil fuel industry.

I had just turned nine years old in 1988 when one of the world’s most prominent and daring climate scientists James Hansen gave evidence to the US Congress on the link between fossil fuels and climate change. However, there was no resulting change in US energy policy; in fact, the fossil fuel industry only increased its grip on US policy. However, on the back of Hansen’s testimony, the United Nations (UN) did establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In 1990 the IPCC completed their First Assessment Report climate report.

Post-2000

When I turned 25 in 2005, the then warmest year on record was recorded. This has since changed many times.

In 2008, the year before I turned 30, the UK government introduced the world’s first legally binding climate change legislation the Climate Change Act.

In 2010, just months before I turned 31, British oil giant BP came under heavy scrutiny as one of its drilling operations was the cause of the world’s worst-ever oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Just months after my 32nd birthday in 2011, the world’s population reached 7 billion people. When I was born in 1979 it had stood at 4.36 billion.

I had to wait 37 years of my life until the world finally agreed to a global climate deal with the Paris Agreement in 2015. I was lucky enough to be at the conference in person so witnessed this historic occasion.

When I turned 40 in 2019, environmental issues were finally going mainstream in the news and public discourse, largely attributed to a surge in young people caring about the issue.

As I celebrate my 43rd birthday this week, the atmospheric CO2 concentration stands at 420ppm, and even if we drastically manage to reduce emissions in the coming years it will be a while before that number starts to drop to a safer level of 350ppm.

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