Earth Day 2020: Honoring the 50th Anniversary

Three BU environmental experts join the conversation on conservation, green legislation, and the history behind the first Earth Day celebration.

By Katherine Gianni

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Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash.

50 years ago American citizens and environmental activists came together to recognize the first official Earth Day celebration. Flash forward and the holiday is now observed in just under 200 countries to help to lift the status of environmental issues on the world stage. This year’s theme is climate action and organizers have encouraged communities across the world to take action digitally, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In recognition of the anniversary, we spoke with three BU experts: Philip Warburg, senior fellow at BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, James Baldwin, senior lecturer in the department of earth & environment, and Janine Ferretti, professor of the practice of global development policy in the Pardee School of Global Studies. Each weighed in on the importance of continued environmental advocacy, the strides made over the last half-century, and tips for those looking to make a difference in their daily lives.

When did the first Earth Day take place and what was the reasoning behind it?

Warburg: The late 1960s were a time when civil rights protests spilled over into race riots, and broad opposition to the Vietnam War created massive alienation among America’s youth. During the same period, Americans woke up to the environmental devastation caused by unregulated corporate polluters and the wanton use of toxic chemicals like DDT, spotlighted earlier in that decade by Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin with a passion for the environment, recognized the potential for translating some of this disaffection into the embrace of a new challenge: healing the earth’s ravaged environment.

He, together with Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, co-chaired the first Earth Day, intended as a nationwide teach-in on the environment. An estimated 20 million gathered at citywide demonstrations, on college campuses, and in high school classrooms. The political momentum revealed by that huge turnout–the largest in U.S. history to that date–helped get the National Environmental Policy Act and other key laws adopted at the federal and state level.

How has the conversation around climate evolved over the past 50 years?

Baldwin: Over the past 50 years the biggest change has been a shift away from thinking about climate change as a far off threat to the future to the recognition of it as an immediate challenge and something that is impacting our everyday lives. We are seeing the impacts of sea-level rise right here in Boston and very dramatically in places like Florida. Additionally we are seeing the increase in variability in our climate in storms, droughts and floods. Climate change is no longer something that is a “problem for our children,” it is here and it is now.

Do you have any simple tips that people can put into practice at home to help them go green?

Ferretti: Articulating your concern for the environment and your demand for action as a citizen is the most important thing people can do. It is a great disappointment that on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are witnessing the recent rollbacks by the Trump Administration in automobile efficiency standards, pollution controls on the coal industry, industrial soot, and protections of wildlife refuge areas to name a few. The rollback is not because things are better and the regulations are not needed. The opposite is true. The rollback is because of the powerful influence of special interests. Advocate Denis Hayes recently wrote in the Seattle Times “Covid-19 robbed us of Earth Day this year. So let’s make Election Day Earth Day…this November 3, vote for the Earth.”

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Baldwin: The biggest thing we can do as individuals is work to reduce our carbon footprint. Some easy ways to do this are to use your feet or public transportation whenever possible, try and find ways to conserve energy at home, and try to make some reduction in meat consumption. At a societal level we need to make a shift away from fossil fuels. The good news is that renewable energy is now very cost competitive, and in some parts of the world wind power is already cheaper than coal. The challenge is that we really need to accelerate that transition to avoid the worst possible climate futures.

Warburg: Stop using your clothes dryer! Year-round, it’s probably the most energy-hungry appliance in your home. Simple drying racks work fine in the winter; outdoor clothes lines are great in warmer weather if you have access to a porch or yard.

What are some of the biggest climate misconceptions you’d like to clear up moving forward?

Ferretti: We have the technology and know-how to effectively push down the GHG emission curve to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 — that’s what we need to do to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century to avoid devastating social and economic consequences. The biggest climate misconception is that it is too expensive to take action to address the climate crisis. The reality is at this stage we can’t afford not to take action. A recent study estimates that the cost of not meeting the international climate goal set in Paris to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, ranged from $150 trillion to $792 trillion by the end of the century. They found that by achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement, the net global economic benefit would be between $127 trillion and $616 trillion by 2100.

Baldwin: A misconception I often hear in the public sphere is that climate change is something that is not well understood, highly uncertain, or contentious among scientists. In reality, there is broad scientific consensus that climate change is both very real and largely a result of human activities. The points of scientific debate center around a few key questions: what will people do, how will nature respond, and what are the precise local scale impacts of climate change.

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Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

What have been some of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation over the last half-century?

Ferretti: Earth Day 1970 set into motion a huge agenda of environmental reform. Ambient air standards were set under an overhauled and modernized Clean Air Act to reduce smog. Regulations were put in place to tackle acid rain and successfully reversed the trend of acidification of lakes. The Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts were passed to water quality standards so that people might have drinkable and swimmable waters. Regulations were put in place to phase out use of chemicals damaging the ozone layer, which together with concerted international actions resulted in patching up the hole in the ozone layer. The Environmental Protection Agency was established to enforce environmental standards and regulations.

What is often overlooked as a major result of Earth Day is the increased level of citizen engagement. Millions were inspired to get involved. Older organizations such as the Sierra Club have vastly increased their memberships as did emerging organizations such as Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters. New organizations were founded with specialized abilities and targeted concerns, such as Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Justice and the Environmental Investigation Agency, among others.

What work still needs to be done?

Warburg: We must take several essential steps to shift America off carbon-based fuels like coal, natural gas, and petroleum in its various forms. Most broadly, we need to internalize the full environmental costs of fossil fuels through an escalating fee on carbon emissions. This could be implemented most efficiently by placing a surcharge on fossil fuel suppliers and distributors, rather than assessing end-users across multiple sectors. We must also take immediate action to curb harmful methane emissions from fracking and other oil and gas operations. In the automotive sector, it’s time to end the decades-long duality that holds “light trucks,” including SUVs, to much more lenient fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards than conventional cars.

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Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash.

Baldwin: If we are to avoid the worst possible scenarios, the U.S. and international community needs to take more aggressive action to help foster the transition away from fossil fuels. The market is starting to move us in this direction but broad action is needed to accelerate this and figure out how to integrate the communities that are reliant on fossil fuels into the post fossil fuel economy. Here in the U.S., that will require liberals and conservatives working together to come up with solutions. There are some strong conservative voices for climate action, such as BU alumni Charles Hernick that give hope for the idea that we can transcend partisanship to tackle one of the greatest threats we have ever faced.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. For more research and updates from BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, follow @ISE_BU. For updates from BU’s department of Earth and Environment follow @BUEarth. Follow Philip Warburg @pwarburg and James Baldwin @JamesGBaldwin.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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