I’ve been celebrating Earth Day since 1970 when I was in high school; and now I am a 70-year old man. I’ve seen a lot of Earth Days come and go, some with a fanfare of government announcements and others with an insipid nod to Mother Earth. I get that there are a lot of issues vying to test our limits for outrage. Gun violence feels out of control; as a society we need to deal with how miserably we sometimes treat minorities, a woman’s right to choose and proper maternal health care have been challenged by the Supreme Court and many state legislatures; and a government shutdown over extension of the debt limit looms ahead. But our world –everybody and everything in it– is beginning to burn up from the slowly creeping onslaught of climate change. Solving this existential (i.e., survival) problem is in our hands, but seems beyond our grasp.
Other than a small percentage of climate deniers, we all know that the warming of earth, oceans, lakes, mountains, glaciers, and entire continents is happening; and we know a lot about the consequences of that warming. We are beginning to see the tangible consequences today. Extreme fires in the Western US, a once in a thousand years drought that has strangled reservoirs in the West until this winter’s historic rains and snowfall. Drought in the Middle East and Africa has contributed to civil wars. We see species shifting away from the equator towards the cooler poles. And we see historic heatwaves in Europe, India and elsewhere that kill people and grind economies to a halt.
Given this picture, what does it mean that another Earth Day has come and gone without more tangible progress on the single biggest threat to humankind, a threat that even wealthy people in developed economies will have an impossible time escaping unless, like Elon Musk, they hope to go to Mars someday in the future?
I want to say that we can tackle this problem and slow or reverse climate change. It won’t be easy; it will be harder than other environmental issues we have tackled in the US and made huge progress on. Our streams, lakes and rivers have much better water quality now; many are beginning to be fishable and swimmable 50 years after the Clean Water Act passed in 1972. Our air is no longer as polluted with smoke and hazardous substances as it was in the 1970’ and 1980’s. The Clean Air Act and hazardous chemical control act have slowly squeezed out many forms of air pollution. These accomplishments were not easy or cheap; they were expensive and took 50 years to come to fruition.
We don’t have 50 years to fix climate change. Unfortunately, the causes of climate change are much more more deeply embedded in our economic system and lifestyles than air or water pollution ever were. We have more like 10-20 years to get on the right path towards reducing and eliminating the things that cause climate change. In the grand scheme of things that is not a lot of time; and the task ahead is expensive and complicated. I remember when they said that about air and water pollution in 1970, too. The critics said it was going to be expensive and complicated and very time consuming. We should not start down the road, they said. They were wrong; our water and air are much healthier for us today. Just like in 1970, we need to ignore the naysayers in 2023.
So, what is different between Earth Day 2023 and Earth Day 1970? For one, the problem is existential; it concerns all of us and every other lifeform on Earth. Climate is everywhere; we cannot escape it by moving to a clean suburb or even a different part of the world. It is ‘everywhere all at once’ to riff off a recent Oscar winning movie. Unlike air and water pollution in the 1970’s, climate change is a problem of collective action for the entire world, not just one country. A molecule of CO2 released in Europe, China, or Canada impacts us here in the United States and vice versa.
But on Earth Day 2023, we have much better environmental science and technology than we did in 1970, a much better understanding of how to communicate with people about environmental threats and solutions, much more nuanced policy tools, and a heightened sense of urgency for some of us.
Another difference, in 1970 we had a choice to clean up the water and the air, and we took that choice knowing that it would be hard and expensive. This Earth Day is different: today we have no choice if we want our children and their children to live on this planet with coasts and oceans that have animals and plants resembling today’s. I hope we make that choice.