50 years ago, 20 million Americans came together in cities all over the country to demonstrate for a cleaner environment. This might be unimaginable, but 50 years ago there was no Clean Water Act. There was no Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t exist. Without these entities it was perfectly legal for a factory to dump whatever toxins it wanted into the air and water. There were no legal measures preventing it.
It took millions of Americans taking to the streets to create this change. It’s a reminder that no change can happen without speaking up for it. No change can happen without fighting for it.
This Earth Day, during the heart of a global pandemic, we are witnessing how important competent government and social protections and benefits are for safeguarding people, especially the most vulnerable. The same future is unfolding for climate change where society’s most vulnerable are also on the frontlines with few societal protections (physical or financial) and even fewer pollution regulations to prevent the looming catastrophe.
Our response to the pandemic is showcasing just how unprepared we are for a changing future and the ability to deal with the increase in disasters that climate change will unleash. Whether it’s drought, hurricanes, wildfires, ecosystem collapses, mass migration or the expansion of current or new diseases, our economic and political system are not currently capable of dealing with the looming crisis.
50 years ago the fight was for clean air and water. While this fight still persists, humans’ ability has evolved from changing their local environment and waterways to changing the acidity of the oceans and the carbon makeup in the atmosphere. Climate change is touching every corner of this planet and impacting everyone on it.
Like the pandemic, there are no borders for this pollution and how far its impacts can reach. This past year, I traveled to some of the most remote places in the world—from Pacific Island nations to densely populated villages in Bangladesh—to witness and tell the stories of communities that will be vanishing from the impacts of climate change. Like the pandemic, the loss and devastation of these communities will not be relegated to these places. It might hit them hardest first, but the wave will come to all our shores. Many would argue with storms like Hurricane Sandy, Harvey and Marie and the extraordinary West Coast fires, the wave is already here. It’s just a slower moving crisis.
While this pandemic is a human tragedy and not a solution for pollution reduction, a remarkable side effect of large-scale quarantine is the massive drop in air and noise pollution. Polluted skies are clearing up from China to Los Angeles. It reminds us how heavy our footprints have been with our consumption and showcases how quickly the earth can heal itself. Unfortunately, we have broken parts of it beyond repair, but with the majority of human activities on pause, it’s illuminating how quickly we can reverse course.
The political landscape in the US has changed dramatically in the last 50 years and industry polluters are more powerful, cunning and savvy in subverting the electorate. However, Earth Day reminds us that there are far fewer of them than of us.
This Earth Day we have so many past and present reminders for the future we are headed toward and our power to change that future through our voices and votes. It’s a major election year and we have the opportunity to alter our trajectory. However, like 50 years ago, we must show up and fight for it.
Lynn Englum has been writing and working on climate change and resilience issues for over a decade. She co-authored World Wildlife Fund's Climate Blog and her articles have appeared in various other news, journal and magazine outlets.