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

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?

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?

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

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?

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.

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

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

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?

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.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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