History, History Column

Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years

by Sarah Becker ©2020

Earth Day Celebrates 50 Years

“The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation,” President Theodore Roosevelt—a progressive New York Republican—told State Governors in 1908.

“Conservation of our natural resources, though the gravest problem of today, is yet but part of another and greater problem to which this Nation is not yet awake, but to which it will awake in time, and with which it must hereafter grapple if it is to live,” Roosevelt continued.

On April 22 the country, the city of Alexandria celebrates Earth Day’s 50th anniversary.  That said what exactly do we celebrate?  “Rising sea surface temperatures and acidic waters could eliminate nearly all existing coral reef habitats by 2100,” the University of Hawaii Manoa explained on February 17, 2020, at the Ocean Sciences Meeting.  Coral reefs harbor the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally and directly support over 500 million people worldwide.

In fact, scientists “project 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs will disappear over the next 20 years as a result of climate change and pollution.”  Although pollution poses numerous threats to ocean creatures, “the new research suggests corals are most at risk from emission driven changes in their environment.”

“Much of the emissions spike is driven by the continued rise of transportation emissions, now the nation’s top source of emissions,” the Rhodium Group explained.  Rather than develop mass transit competitively, plan and market its metro stations fittingly, the city of Alexandria, despite its multi-modal policy, mostly encourages auto-driven streets.

Born in 1858, in New York City, Teddy Roosevelt was a byproduct of the Second Industrial Revolution (1840-1870).  The Second Industrial Revolution was steam-powered, including ships and railways.  Technology was king and it was technological change, Union weapons testing that inspired President Abraham Lincoln to incorporate the National Academy of Sciences in 1863.

By 1900 Wall Street was no longer promoting agriculture, textiles and railroads.  It favored emerging industries like steel, chemical, petroleum, electrical and automotive.  It was, as Mark Twain said, The Gilded Age. “We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt reasoned.    

President Roosevelt responded by providing protection for approximately 230 million acres of public land, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 150 national forests—he established the U.S. Forest Service—51 Federal bird reservations, and 4 national game reserves.  By contrast President Donald Trump (R-FL/NY) is in the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the multi nation Paris Climate Agreement.

UNESCO claims the coral reefs in all 29 reef-containing World Heritage sites “will cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of the century if we continue to emit greenhouse gases (GHG) under a business as usual scenario.”  Merriam Webster defines GHG as “any of the various gaseous components (such as carbon dioxide CO2 or methane) that absorb radiation; trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect.”  Iconic reefs such as the United States Northwestern Hawaiian Islands “have all experienced their worst bleaching on record; with devastating effects.”

What is the social cost of carbon?   “For most of us, it’s a way to grasp how much our carbon emissions will affect the world’s health, agriculture, and economy for the next several hundred years,” MIT’s Technology Review said.  “It’s approximately the damage done by driving from San Francisco to Chicago, assuming that about a ton of carbon spits out of the tailpipe over those 2,000 miles.” The Obama and Trump administrations numbers are “contentious”— [depending] on how you value future damages.”

“In the U.S. nearly one in two passenger cars sold today is an SUV,” the International Energy Agency reported in October 2019.  “If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.”

“As the global fleet of SUVs has grown emissions from the vehicles have increased more than fourfold, from 2010 to 2018,” the IEA report continued.  “In that period, SUVs doubled their global market share from 17% to 39% and their annual emissions rose to more than 700 megatonnes of CO2.  No energy sector except power drove a larger increase in carbon emissions, putting SUVs ahead of heavy industry (including iron, steel, cement and shipping), aviation and shipping.”

“We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent,” President Jimmy Carter (D-GA) said in 1977.  “Nothing more clearly illustrates the serious consequences of our long delay in creating a comprehensive national energy policy than does [the need for] legislation.”

“We must emphasize research on solar energy and other renewable energy sources,” Carter continued.  He was the first President to openly criticize America’s dependence on foreign oil.  Today Carter’s Georgia farm fields are packed with solar energy panels.

“Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people,” Carter clarified on April 18, 1977.  “This difficult effort will be the “moral equivalent of war”—except that we will…build not destroy.  The 1973 gasoline lines are gone…but our energy problem is worse…because more time has passed without planning for the future.  And it will get worse every day until we act.”

“One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight,” Roosevelt concluded in 1908.  “We have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”  Carbon dioxide molecules, once emitted, remain in the atmosphere for almost a century.

“We must look back at history to understand our energy problem, the transition from wood to coal to oil and natural gas,” President Carter claimed.  Still the United States is the world’s second largest carbon emitter.

Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) was the first contemporary President to concern himself with Clean Air and Water Quality. “There is no excuse for a river flowing red with blood from slaughterhouses,” Johnson said in 1965.  “There is no excuse…for chemical companies and oil refineries using our major rivers as pipelines for toxic wastes.  There is no excuse for communities to use other people’s rivers as a dump for their raw sewage.”  Sewage, for example, which includes plastics.

The National Academy of Sciences, in May 2020, reported that “microplastics—pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm—have been environmentally detected; in the guts of fish, sea otters poop, and the stomachs of dead whales and dolphins.”  Malaysia in May 2019 sent back “some 3,300 tons of non-recyclable plastic waste to countries such as the U.S. in a move to avoid becoming a dumping ground for rich nations.”   

“We live with history,” Johnson told Congress in 1966.  “It tells us of a hundred proud civilizations that have decayed through careless neglect of the nature that fed them…To sustain an environment suitable for man, we must fight on a thousand battlegrounds.”

“Despite all of our wealth and knowledge, we cannot create a Redwood Forest, a wild river, or a gleaming seashore,” Johnson concluded.  “But we can keep those we have.  The science that has increased our abundance can find ways to restore and renew an environment equal to our needs.”

President and California Republican Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the same year co-founder Denis Hayes established Earth Day.  “We have the chance today to do more than ever before in our history to make life better in America—to ensure better education, better health…better transportation, a cleaner environment,” Nixon noted.  “Let us be bold in our determination to meet those needs in new ways.”

In February 2020 the Harvard Medical School convened a symposium described as “the opening salvo of a national effort to get the healthcare industry to confront climate change’s impact especially the spread of deadly disease.”  Lung related diseases like asthma; cardiovascular disease; adverse pregnancy outcomes and dietary trends including meat and dairy production.

“The only way we will solve the existential threat of climate change is to include everyone in the solutions,” former President Carter wrote in November 2019.  “Climate change is the most extreme human rights challenge of our time, and a human-rights based approach is needed to solve it.”

“In 1856 Eunice Foote was the first scientist to show the connection between excessive carbon dioxide and increased atmospheric temperatures, [to explain] the greenhouse effect.” Carter continued.  “Because women scientists were not respected her work was published under a man’s name…We cannot solve this complex problem as long as women and girls, half of the world’s population, have unequal access to education and decision-making bodies.”  The same women and girls who fetch clean water, tend the animals, and prepare the families food.  Only 0.2% of all philanthropic giving is provided to women-led environmental programs.

Teen-age Swedish climate activist and Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg suggests it is wrong to portray climate change as “primarily an opportunity to create new green jobs, new businesses, and green economic growth…Climate change is an emergency, not something you can like on Facebook.  Politicians one second say climate change is very important…and the next second, they want to expand airports…and motorways.”

In 2016 the United Nations Civil Aviation Organization adopted international carbon dioxide emissions standards for aircraft.  The United States struggles to meet the U.N. 2020 deadline.  Yet Alexandria, a city located near National Airport, National Landing continually yields to regional pressure—Maryland, roads, and road construction especially.  On May 23, 2019, T&ES staff openly admitted Alexandria’s City Council approved Braddock’s controversial GW Parkway/Slater’s Lane connector road absent adequate transportation analyses.

“If greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.70 F, or 1.50 C above preindustrial levels by 2040,” the United Nations 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report concluded. “Without aggressive action, many effects that scientists once expected to happen further in the future will arrive by [or before] 2040, and at the lower temperature.”  J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. recently announced “plans to restrict investments in coal companies; to dedicate $200b to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.”   

“[W]e need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime,” Myles Allen, Oxford University climate scientist and author said.  America, its localities need “to ratchet up their ambitions…and cut emissions of greenhouse gases.”

“What’s the biggest contributor of greenhouse gasses?” NBC4 meteorologist Amelia Draper asked.  (1) Electricity or transportation?  Answer: Transportation.  (2) Maintaining buildings or passenger cars?  Answer: Passenger cars.

“The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, I believe, will be the largest, most diverse action in human history,” co-founder Denis Hayes told a National Press Club audience.  “The Earth Day Network is prepared to engage with over 3 billion people in 190 countries through a series of mass events and educational programs.”

To learn more about Alexandria’s Earth Day activities, visit www.alexandriava.gov/EarthDay.

The Nobel Foundation hosts its first ever Nobel Prize Summit—Our Planet, Our Future—in Washington, D.C., April 29-May 1.  The discussion includes 20 Nobel laureates.  “Today’s leaders must not bequeath a dangerously destabilized planet to future generations,” the Foundation exclaimed.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. 

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