Talking Green: Earth Day’s 50th anniversary
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
This year, Wednesday, April 22, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. As COVID-19 continues to transform our social lives in the Yampa Valley, we are made even more aware of the value of the natural environment as we get outside to endure the uncertainty.
In this way, the environment is as important to us now as it was to those who were involved in the first Earth Day. It leaves many asking, why does this matter and how can we use the concept of salience to enact climate action moving forward?
The first Earth Day was born in reaction to the industrial impacts on the environment during the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” described the effects of DDT on bird populations, which gained traction when bald eagle populations declined to record lows through the 1960s. The Cuyahoga River caught fire yet again and disastrously in 1969, while the Santa Barbara oil spill dumped 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean that same year. The relentless L.A. smog caused by unregulated auto emissions necessitated response.
Together, these disparate geographic events became connected in the minds of the U.S. public who demanded protection of their families and the outdoor spaces where their children played.
This turn in public opinion towards the call for industrial regulation marked the dawn of the U.S. Environmental Movement, or when the environment became a salient political issue across the U.S. In political science, salience carries an important meaning because it describes the point at which an issue becomes vital to voters. For politicians, it is crucial to get salient issues onto their policy agendas for political action.
Motivated by the political times, Sen. Gaylord Nelson called for a “national teach-in on the environment” across the country April 22, 1970. An unprecedented 20 million Americans took to the streets, and the first Earth Day formalized the public call to protect the environment.
In response, rarely seen bipartisan alignment put the environment on the agenda, and numerous environmental measures were created within five years, including the Environmental Protection Agency, National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and more.
Today, the effects of climate change mirror those of industry during the 1960s. They are geographically distributed, harmful to people and natural environments and scientifically proven to be caused by anthropogenic activities that produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. As history shows, climate action will be spurred when the issue becomes salient to the U.S. public.
Greta Thunberg and other young activists were gaining ground in bringing climate change into the public radar prior to the COVID crisis, and when it abates, how will we reinvigorate our call for climate action to create the futures we want?
As you celebrate Earth Day on Wednesday, April 22, take some time to reflect on how and why the environment is salient to you, so we can come together through action in the days ahead.
Kate Brocato and Michelle Stewart of Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.
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