Earth Day 2021 is here, but there’s no time to celebrate. We’ve got problems—big problems.
They aren’t necessarily new problems, but with major concerns like oceans rising, surface temperatures getting warmer and warmer, and air and water pollution still being a major issue worldwide, the clock is ticking on making a real and lasting change. Not to sound alarmist, but if we don’t do something about these and other problems now by setting Science Based Targets, moving toward net zero and offsetting our climate footprint among other things, there could be major ramifications for life on this planet.
OK, that is the very definition of alarmist, but our planet deserves our undivided attention.
Earth Day Origins
Let’s start at the beginning. In January 1969, there was a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, California, that caused an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil to be released over 40 miles of coastline. At the time it was the largest oil spill in the country, but there have been several larger incidents since. In the late 1960s, an era when U.S. activism was arguably at its peak, a senator named Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin decided it was time to take action and make a push to help protect the planet. He enlisted bipartisan support that initiated an unprecedented environmental movement in the country, and the first Earth Day was born in 1970. The initiative also spawned the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later that year.
In April 1970, during the first Earth Day, an article appeared in the Arlington Heights (Illinois) Day newspaper with the headline, “There’s a New World A’comin’, ” next to a picture of a boy lying under a tree. The kid seems to be lost in thought with his arms spread out on either side. It’s as if he is trying to get someone’s attention.
The article discussed the first Earth Day, which took place on April 22 that year and every year since, and the article offered a dire warning about what could come in the next decade if nothing is done about problems like pollution. That was 51 years ago!
After the initial Earth Day, it would be another 18 years before a NASA scientist used the term “global warming” in congressional testimony, and it wasn’t until 2015 that most nations would sign on to the Paris Agreement and formulate a plan to help limit global warming to no more than 1.5˚C (2.7˚F) above preindustrial levels—a figure we are expected to see as early as 2030 but almost certainly by 2052.
While some major efforts to protect the environment have been initiated—such as the European Union setting an ambitious goal to achieve net zero by 2050 and the United States potentially headed down that path—there’s still a long way to go.
Google Earth: Just Google It
If you want to see something sobering, check out the updated Google Earth tool, which allows you to see time lapse visuals in 2-D and in 3-D related to climate change. Focus on Cape Disappointment, Antarctica, and you can see how much the glaciers there melted between 1985 and 2020. Likewise, if you pay a visit to Lago Ranco, Chile, you can see deforestation appear right before your eyes.
“As we looked at what was happening,” Rebecca Moore, Google Earth’s director, wrote in a blog post, “five themes emerged: forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures, sources of energy, and our world’s fragile beauty.”
Without a doubt, the world is changing. Nautical explorer Robert Ballard even discussed this when I interviewed him a few years ago. Ocean temperatures, for instance, have risen 0.33˚C (0.6 ˚F) since 1969; sea levels have gone up 20 centimeters (8 inches) in the past century; and ice is melting at an enormous pace. Greenland, for instance, lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice—per year—between 1993 and 2019. For perspective, the Great Wall of China, which is considered the heaviest object on Earth, is estimated to weigh 116 billion pounds (about 58 million tons).
And 2020 was the second hottest year ever recorded around the globe behind 2016. Good old 2019 held second place for a full year.
The world, as Moore wrote, is fragile, and it’s the only one we’ve got—at least for the foreseeable future. The time for action is now, and countries and companies must take the lead. Thankfully, some organizations are already doing just that! Earth Day is a yearly reminder of what could be, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait for the Earth to fully orbit the sun to start making a difference. An opportunity to change the world starts today; let’s embrace it like never before.