On Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, reflecting on today’s challenges


Jonathan Pershing


On this 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we are all in an unsettled place. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken tens of thousands of lives, and containment measures have caused unprecedented economic disruption. Our world has turned upside down.

Beyond the pandemic disaster, other dangers – most notably the very real threat and current impacts of climate change – are looming. Here in California, scientists say that amidst one of the driest 20-year periods in this state’s history we have entered a climate-driven megadrought. Last year was the warmest year on record for the world’s oceans, affecting marine life in grave ways – and already, water temperatures in many of the earth’s great bodies of water are exceeding 2019 levels. We can anticipate more severe superstorms, hurricanes, and cyclones this year, which will hit places already reeling from COVID-19.

Since climate change won’t stop for the coronavirus pandemic, we must be prepared to address the effects of both COVID-19 and climate change.

Historic precedent for big changes

If we look over the past 50 years since the first Earth Day, we can find an inspiring precedent of coming together to act in the face of multiple crises. In 1970, to address crisis levels of air pollution and smog in America’s major cities, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, an ambitious and bipartisan revamping of the federal government’s role in cleaning up air pollution that helped pave the way for a host of subsequent legislative and regulatory actions, which have saved countless lives and helped safeguard the environment.

This happened at a time when, as now, the US was roiled with political disagreements and civil strife, deep into years of casualties with the Vietnam War and in the midst of a great struggle for social change, with a wave of civil rights laws and a backlash of sustained violence against African Americans.

The road ahead

None of this was easy. Then, as now, we had to surmount opposition from entrenched interests, overcome uncertainty in the science, and in many cases, develop entirely new bodies of law and policy.

On this day in 1970, 20 million Americans – an estimated then ten percent of the population – took to the streets to protest extreme industrial pollution and demand regulation. By the end of that year, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and over the course of the next three years, a number of major legislative bills protecting the environment were passed.

Today, technology is on our side with a raft of advances, including in renewable energy, battery capacity, electric vehicles, and energy efficiency that will ease our transition to a more sustainable future. It will likely be cheaper, even without the extraordinary benefits that will accrue from saving the climate, to make these changes rather than stick with the status quo. 

Climate change and its effects present complicated, daunting problems that will require new levels of coordination, communication, and cooperation – and certainly, much greater levels of philanthropic investment. But we have the ability to overcome the hurdles and develop genuine, equitable, lasting solutions. We have frameworks for global collaboration. And we have a new generation of educated, engaged, and informed youth who understand the risks of climate change and are committed to action.

As we recover from this pandemic, we will be faced with challenges and opportunities. Governments will be making massive investments to restart the economy. Those investments must be made wisely. This once-in-a-century disaster will give us a once-in-a-century opportunity to not just rebuild our economy but reimagine the kind of world we want to live in. 

But we can also do it wrong. Governments can spend their money not to transform the world to a better and cleaner version, but to prop up the status quo. One where polluting industries have free rein to despoil the environment with hardly any consequence, perpetuate environmental inequities, and where governments enable that behaviour rather than steer us to a more sustainable path.   

The choice is up to us. We can do this. We can come back stronger and better. We can build the world we want to live in. But we don’t have much time. Decisions are being made today – and unfortunately, the environment won’t give us a second chance.

Jonathan Pershing is the former US Special Envoy for Climate Change and is currently the program director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program.

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