As we celebrate another Earth Day it is perhaps instructive to place today into perspective by looking backwards at the first Earth Day, held in 1970. In 1970, 20 million – 1 out of every 10 – Americans participated in an Earth Day event, today’s participation will undoubtedly be far lower. On the other hand, the 1970 Earth Day was primarily a U.S. event, having been conceived only a few months prior to the actual event by a U. S. Senator. The first Earth Day was rapidly followed by a flood of environmental legislation in the U.S. and is considered as the beginning of the environmental movement. Earth Day has now spread around the globe and Earth Day 2012 is a international event.
While the celebration of Earth Day has spread, much has also been lost, at least in the U.S. The original Earth Day was a day of involvement. It was a day of service, a day to pick up, clean up, plant and otherwise care for the Earth. It was a day to work with other members of your community to reduce the damage that we have inflicted on the planet, and erase our footprints. Today we more likely watch a dignitary “plant” a tree in front of City Hall, or go to a park to attend a concert and tour the booths of commercial vendors . The concept of actual physical work and community involvement in environmentally-oriented projects has been replaced by mere passive attendance. The irony is that rather than reducing our footprint on the Earth, we now increase it by our Earth Day “celebrations”.
On his return trip to the nations' capital from the 1969 oil well blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara, California Senator Gaylord Nelson conceived the initial Earth Day. The Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River (Cleveland, Ohio) fires had resulted in significant press coverage and heightened environmental awareness. Senator Nelson, a dedicated conservationist, had been deeply disturbed by the destruction caused by the mammoth Santa Barbara oil spill, and was also intrigued by the new college campus "teach-in" movement. Sensing the opportunity for increased citizen environmental involvement he directed some of his college age staff members to develop an national environmental teach-in, and stipulated that it be organized and managed at the community level, with only coordination and support at the national level. Conceived in September 1969, the first Earth Day was held the following April.
On the eve of Earth Day 2010 the drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank causing the largest oil spill in history. While the well was eventually capped, it is reported(1) that oil is still seeping in the vicinity of the well. Oil is reported to still be present in the Gulf wetlands, and observed abnormalities in Gulf fish, invertebrates and marine mammals are being reported. Meanwhile oil production from deep water wells in the Gulf have returned to pre-blowout levels, and new permits for deep water drilling are being issued at a record rate. Even more disturbing, permits have been recently issued for drilling in the pristine Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea, sites were weather conditions would prevent a spill response similar to that mounted in the Gulf. In sharp contrast to 1970 there is little, if any, media coverage of Gulf recovery, or future Arctic drilling, other than heightened calls for increased offshore drilling, which is claimed will lower the price of gasoline.
Likewise, both public and governmental interest in climate change appears to be waning, in spite of the extreme weather that has been, and is being, experienced around the globe. Media Matters recently reported(2) that U.S. broadcast TV coverage of climate change has “plummeted” in the last two years with nightly news coverage dropping 72% between 2009 and 2011, with coverage dropping 90% on the Sunday shows. During the two-year study period the majority of climate change information came from either politicians (50%) or media personalities (45%), and none from scientists. At least in U.S. politics climate change has rapidly become a term that is associated with a fringe, liberal viewpoint, and is to be avoided at all costs. Even being labeled as a past believer in climate change can be detrimental to a political career. It appears to widely believed that climate change is a false belief that will destroy our economy, and increase unemployment.
Population, a primary cause of climate change, was a major focus of the 1970 Earth Day as demonstrated by this popular image from the cover of the journal, Environmental Action. At the time, the global population was 3.7 billion, which has increased 90% to over 7 billion today. However, the rate of population growth has slowed from 2.07% in 1970 to 1.07% today(3). It is important to bear in mind that this is a drop in growth rate, not a drop in absolute numbers. Since the world population now is 90% greater than in 1970 the actual population is increasing by about the same number of people (approximately 75 million) today as it was in 1970 (about half the rate, but about twice the population). Demographers do not agree on a reason for the past decline in growth rate, nor the future growth rate, but if it remains at its current level the world population should reach 8 billion in 2023, 9 billion by 2041 and then 10 billion at some point after 2081. However a slight increase in the growth rate would greatly increase the population by the end of the century, while a slight decrease in growth rate could actually result in a lower world population by 2100.
As long as we are dependent upon fossil fuels, population and consumption will be the primary drivers of climate change. Since both population and consumption have increased since 1970, and consumption will continue to do so as the economic condition of the citizens of developing nations improves, the ultimate result will be an increased rate of climate change. The conventional surrogate for greenhouse gases (CO2) has continued to increase from value of 325ppm in 1970 to the current level of approximately 395ppm as measured at the isolated Mauna Loa Observatory. More significantly, while the rate of population growth has decreased since 1970, the rate of CO2 increase has more than doubled since 1970, from 0.8 to over 2.0 today – a indication of increasing consumption.
A simple extrapolation of the Mauna Loa measurements indicates that CO2 levels will reach 550 ppm, by 2050, a value toward the low end of most predictions.
The challenge we face this Earth Day is nothing less than the reversal of the red, "extrapolated" line in the graph above. While scientists disagree about the specific point at which climate change becomes irreversible, virtually all agree that it is lower than 450 ppm, a level that will be reached in about 20 years at the present rate of increase.
As citizens of the world, we must ask if complacency is warranted this Earth Day. Have we done all that we can to fulfill the promise of the original, 1970 Earth Day? Have our activities today “given back” to the planet? It is apparent that we cannot rely on our leaders to protect the planet, but rather we must act to make it uncomfortable for them not to do so. It has been reported that after the 1970 Earth Day President Nixon told his staff that “I don’t understand what those people want, but do whatever it takes to make them happy”. Consequently the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and a broad array of legislation to protect the air, water, land and endangered species was rapidly signed into law. When 20 million Americans in communities all over the country united for the benefit of our planet the government had little choice but to listen and respond. While such an outpouring of effort, at the grassroots level, seems unlikely today, we can, and must, make our voices heard. Write your elected representatives, let them know that you care about our planet, and are concerned about climate change. Watch how they vote, and thank them when they vote to protect the planet. Not just on April 22, but make the 22nd of every month your own personal “Climate Day”!
Learn! Teach! Act!
4..) Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory from: Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL (www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/) and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/)
5.) CO2 extrapolation graph from: http://greenphysicist2.blogspot.com/2010/02/atmospheric-carbon-dioxide-levels.html