Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Back in 1970, a number of events prompted Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, a former U.S. senator, to make people aware of environmental issues. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught fire due to oil floating on its surface, and a massive oil spill had ravaged the beaches of Santa Barbara. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed in December 1970 due to bipartisan recognition of the need to clean up the environment.
During these last 50 years, we have seen our air and water cleaned up as people recognize that we all inhabit this Earth together and must protect it together.
The many activities originally planned to recognize this important Earth Day anniversary have been canceled as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all shelter at home, we have been giving the Earth a breather – researchers at UC Berkeley have seen pollution levels dropping by half in parts of the Bay Area due to the huge reduction of cars and trucks on the road, and much-reduced air emissions from industry. We see clear blue skies and listen to the songs from a variety of birds as we take our walks around the block.
It has been amazing how the whole world has come together to combat COVID-19. Everyone is vulnerable, and we are all taking action to keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe.
There is another crisis that threatens all of us and our planet: climate change. What if we harnessed this same level of dedication to combat climate change? Can we honor Earth Day by making similar commitments to combat climate change?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us of the impact of increasing greenhouse gases, which will cause global temperatures to rise. We have already seen the havoc that climate change is causing: devastating wildfires in California, droughts in the Midwest, intense hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and rising sea levels throughout the world.
Our drilling, mining and burning of fossil fuels has upset the Earth’s delicate carbon cycle. We are spewing way more carbon into the atmosphere than the Earth can cycle through its natural processes, resulting in much more rapid warming of the atmosphere. This excess carbon produces a warming greenhouse effect.
Unlike the COVID-19 crisis, the climate crisis has been years in the making and will continue to build for years to come. We humans are much better at responding to an immediate crisis than a slowly building one.
But what if we harnessed our energy to actually avoid this impending climate crisis by instituting policies and behaviors to change the disastrous trajectory we’re on? We can do this, if we have the political will to do so.
As our economy struggles to recover from COVID-19, why not adopt policies that kick-start the economy to an environmentally sustainable one? One that moves our electricity supply to nonpolluting renewable sources like solar and wind, shutting down polluting coal and natural gas power plants. One that manufactures electric vehicles rather than polluting gasoline vehicles. One that uses that clean electricity to power those electric vehicles. One that trains and directs our workforce to be part of this clean energy ecosystem.
As we honor this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s give our Earth the golden anniversary gift it deserves.
Jan Pepper is mayor of Los Altos.