When Did Earth Day Become Just a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Holiday?
The last year has been especially tough on the day celebrating—and protecting—the environment.
Climate change is rearing its ugly head around the world in a multitude of ways: more extreme, frequent natural disasters that cost billions of dollars, threats to biodiversity and basic resources like food and water, sea level rise that’s swallowing up vulnerable islands. On top of these realities, the Trump administration has made it its mission to roll back as many environmental policies as possible, from moving to rescind the Clean Power Plan, to dismissing environmental justice complaints, to opening up drilling on public lands and off the coasts.
For nearly 50 years, Earth Day has been used as an annual event to shed light on the immense challenges our world faces through protests, rallies, concerts, and recycling and tree-planting events. Often synonymous with the radical environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the “holiday,” held on April 22, highlights a more optimistic outlook on our ability to protect the planet—if we work together.
But for many people—some scientists, activists, even the leader of the organization behind Earth Day—things feel a shade different this year. There’s a heightened sense of urgency as the window of opportunity to curb greenhouse gas emissions is quickly shutting—so much so that even if we did meet the Paris climate agreement goals, we may still see massive consequences. The past year under the Trump administration has been a step backward for the movement, President of Earth Day Network Kathleen Rogers told The Daily Beast. “A lot of partnerships, like NASA, have dissolved. We always did events with big federal agencies, and there are some still doing it, but some are MIA [and others] are doing it in a much more subtle or quieter way,” she said. “I miss that interaction.”
Earth Day has never really been about about federal policies though, she said. At its core, this “holiday” is about getting communities to interact with, understand, and protect their environment in whatever ways they can manage.
“It still remains the largest civic engagement event in human history,” Rogers said. “Close to a billion people participate, whether they’re planting flowers or marching or making commitments.”
This year’s theme is ambitious, tackling a global problem that has gotten completely out of hand: plastic pollution. About 19 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans every year, and that number is expected to double by 2025. This problem, which harms marine life, damages coral reefs, and is starting to infiltrate our food chain, is being tackled by countries around the globe. So this year, for Earth Day, communities from Karnataka, India, to Palm Beach, Florida, people are cleaning up plastic waste on beaches and in parks. The goal is that the effort leads to more awareness and policy
Tackling these immense challenges the planet is facing—pollution, rising seas, extreme weather, environmental racism, to name a few—is a daunting task. Although it may seem to be sometimes, our fate is not already sealed, and that’s a message that is resonating across diverse demographics, geographies, and ideologies, despite the widening political and cultural divides in the U.S.
“We’re trying to meet people where they are, emotionally, spiritually, and physically,” Rogers added.
For instance, even in conservative states, K-12 schools are investing in environmental education and participating in Earth Day celebrations. A Stanford study showed that environmental education improves academic performance and increases civic engagement; the Earth Day Network has developed a curriculum to boost this education. Faith-based groups and religious organizations are also participating in Earth Day higher numbers than ever before, and religious leaders across the world are investing in climate change action. The world’s major businesses and technology companies are being held accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions.
By this year’s celebration, 402 mayors representing 69 million Americans will have committed to uphold the Paris climate agreement. Cities from New York to Colorado to California are suing oil companies over their contributions to climate change; youth across the country are suing state and federal government leaders for failing to take action.
Another way this bottom-up approach is resonating is through science. Since the March on Science last Earth Day, about 450 scientists have committed to running for local, state, or federal office, according to the advocacy group 314 Action. The organization 500 Women Scientists, which promotes women in the industry, has also grown in the last year.
Even if they aren’t running for office, some scientists are starting to shift how they do work and engage with communities in the age of climate change. Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she is taking that more personalized approach to her work. Since there’s an “incredible wealth” of information about how the climate is changing, she and her colleagues are trying to make an effort to bring that information home to people in ways that help them digest information better.
“We want to help them understand what they are likely to face in future so they can make more educated decisions about how they might change, and have better information to make decisions in their own lives,” she said.
Even though the majority of Americans believe in human-influenced climate change, getting them to change their behaviors is another story. According to one recent survey, people are less likely to do so when the asks are less convenient, like cutting meat from their diets, composting, or traveling by air less frequently.
Still, the sense of urgency is becoming clearer, Licker said. “That’s the beauty in Earth Day—it’s this chance to connect with local communities, and when you shift focus and really think about something that’s action-oriented, and solution-oriented, there’s a lot of energy that can come from that,” she added. “I hope that it can reinvigorate people to continue to stay engaged.”