Though our planet has been spinning in space for 4.5 billion years, we’ve only been focused on the need to protect it for 52 years. April 22 marks the 52nd Earth Day, and this year it calls us to invest more deeply in our planet in order to save it.
Newspaper publisher John McConnell presented the idea for Earth Day at a 1969 UNESCO Conference on the Environment. The following year, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson organized an event on April 22 to prove to other legislators that support for environmental issues existed.
That first Earth Day – April 22, 1970 – brought 20 million Americans into the streets to protest the damage inflicted by 150 years of environmental neglect. Since then, the movement has grown to include businesses, investors, and governments worldwide. And it has sparked legislation, international protocols and other global developments and activities that seek to improve our planet’s health. Here’s a quick look at the impact that Earth Day has had around the world.
The Global Effort to Save Our World
Earth Day led to the creation of The Great Global Cleanup, a worldwide effort that unites activists in support of the environment. The campaign sends concerned citizens out into their communities to clean up beaches, rivers, lakes, trails and parks, removing pollution and improving wildlife habitats in the process.
The Canopy Project represents an important global effort to rectify our environmental wrongs. Working with Earthday.org, The Canopy Project identifies sites across the world for reforestation, and tens of millions of trees have been planted since 2010. Current planting locations include the Mount Elgon region of Uganda, the foothills of the Himalayas in India, forests near Sierra Gorda in Mexico, and Madagascar.
Earth Day is often used to kick off global events and activities. In 2021, Financing the Race to Zero – an Exponential Climate Action Summit was held on Earth Day. The summit addressed the need to reallocate capital to finance climate stabilization, and participants discussed ways to scale climate solutions for exponential transformation.
Legislation in the U.S.
In addition to encouraging projects and activities around the world, Earth Day has served as the impetus or launch date for legislation.
In the U.S., celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970 was followed by the introduction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Public awareness around environmental dangers had been growing, helped in part by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – a book that attacked the widespread use of pesticides and the lack of awareness around its dangers. An oil spill in California, as well as a fire in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River that was caused by chemical contaminants, added to the concerns. In response, President Richard Nixon released a 37-point message on the environment and created a council to consider how to use federal programs to address environmental problems. He then asked Congress to consolidate environmental responsibilities under a new body – the EPA.
Soon after the EPA was established, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act were signed into law.
International Protocols and Agreements
In 1990, Earth Day cast the spotlight on recycling, boosting recycling efforts around the world. It also led to the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The summit attracted leaders from 179 countries to discuss the impact of human socio-economic activities on the environment. Their intent was to create an agenda and blueprint for international cooperation on environmental and development issues and policies.
The summit resulted in Agenda 21, a program of action that called for new investment strategies for sustainable development. It also resulted in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Commission on Sustainable Development.
The Paris Agreement was opened for signature on Earth Day 2016 and entered into force on November 4, 2016. This legally binding, international treaty seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Notably, the Paris Agreement called on developed countries to provide financial assistance to countries that need it to build the capacity and identify tools to reduce their carbon footprint.
What Are the Results?
Days of observance often come and go in a flurry of social media posts and news stories, and skeptics might suggest that they don’t accomplish much. But the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and the EPA are developments of consequence, as are the projects and activities that take place each year. Still, more is needed. It’s clear that the Earth needs our care and appreciation on every day of the year, rather than on just one.