The evolution of Earth Day 


Sarah Mittiga started learning about climate change about 10 years ago, she says, and felt helpless. Tips such as turning down the thermostat didn't feel like they went far enough, she says, and her concerns intensified after she had her son, because now she worried about his future, too.

"It's like, 'OK, I did that, I turned down my thermostat, but there's still climate change so now what?'" Mittiga says.

click to enlarge Sarah Mittiga. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Sarah Mittiga.

Eventually, she found out about Citizens' Climate Lobby, an organization that advocates for a national carbon fee and dividend — essentially a kind of carbon tax — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She saw a chance to make a meaningful impact by promoting systemic policy changes, she says, so she got involved with the group and is now co-leader of the Rochester chapter.

Climate change is a central theme of Earth Day 2016, which is on April 22. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to New York City for a public signing of the Paris climate agreement. And many Rochester-area Earth Week events are connected to climate change, including the Rochester Sierra Club chapter's forum on sustainable agriculture, Mothers Out Front's climate march, and the Rochester People's Climate Coalition's talk on connecting with conservatives on the issue.

The first Earth Day took place in 1970 in a country facing serious air and water pollution. The event was so popular that it helped convince a previously reluctant Congress to pass new anti-pollution laws.

Earth Day 1970 marked a tipping point, and over the next 46 years it helped bring environmental issues into the mainstream. Children now learn about recycling in school, and most adults know better than to dump household wastes and motor oil down storm drains.

But some of the gravity of Earth Day has eroded. It can feel like it's loaded with feel-good events that, while well-intentioned, do little to spark conversations on important issues. You plant a tree or recycle some stuff you wanted to get rid of anyway as a kind of penance for not thinking about the environment on the other 364 days of the year.

But Earth Day is not obsolete or irrelevant. It's different than it was in 1970, but so is the world.

Air and water pollution were "big, overt, obvious problems," back then, says Fred Stoss, a 19th Ward resident with a long list of environmental research credits. And they were extremely visible, which is part of the reason that the public demanded action.

Climate change is serious and urgent, but it's more subtle. You can't show someone a picture and say, "This is climate change." The shifts show up over time as trends: heavier, more intense rain storms; loss of polar ice; longer wildfire seasons in the West; shrinking habitats; creeping sea level rise; and hotter, longer heat waves.

click to enlarge Fred Stoss - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Fred Stoss

"What we're left with are the subtle problems," Stoss says, "the things that you can't see."

Environmentalists do see Earth Day as a tool in the climate change fight. It's a way to draw attention to the issue, to show people that there is a problem, to help them better understand it, and to get more of them to speak out for climate action.

It's a long game, but so are most struggles. The first Earth Day wasn't successful just because a lot of people made a big show of it. It was successful because things had gotten so bad and the timing was right.

The United States experienced cycles of industrial and economic growth in the decades leading up to 1970 — a spectacular boom occurred between the end of World War II and the 1960's.

The prosperity, however, came with a cost: severe air and water pollution.

Industrial smokestacks spewed vile soot into the air and vehicles belched out their own foul cocktails. Cities choked on the resulting smog.

The first municipal curbside recycling programs wouldn't be a thing for another few years, and garbage piled up in dumps across the country

Federal agencies warned that the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater system, were degraded to the point of dying; the slow-moving disaster could be seen in the soupy, suffocating waters of Irondequoit Bay. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire. (The city started to clean up the river before the 1969 blaze. After the fire, Cleveland's mayor asked Congress for stronger federal pollution laws.)

These were big, tough, in-your-face problems, and they provided the backdrop for the first Earth Day. US Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, came up with the idea as a way to raise public consciousness around the environment, as well as to encourage popular demand for action on pollution issues.

And so, on April 22, 1970, thousands of people — largely students — packed a section of Manhattan and held a vibrant demonstration. Colleges across the country also held teach-ins.

Stoss, now an associate librarian for biological sciences, environmental sciences, and mathematics at University at Buffalo, was a student at Hartwick College on that first Earth Day. He remembers that the teach-ins there stressed some of the economic, equity, and ethical aspects of environmental damage. Those are still growing and evolving themes in environmental movements.

By the end of 1970, Congress passed sweeping air and water pollution laws and established the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the next two decades, Congress, federal agencies, and state governments built on those laws to tackle new threats, such as acid rain and ozone depletion. Cars burn far less gasoline and their emissions are cleaner, though they are still a massive source of greenhouse gases.

And the country's air and waterways are much cleaner than they were in 1970. The Great Lakes have rebounded, as have lakes in the Adirondacks, which had suffered from the effects of acid rain. In both cases, the improvements were aided not just by laws, but by partnerships between federal and state agencies, university researchers, local public health departments, and environmental groups.

Present-day Congress, however, particularly the Republican majorities, is failing to act on climate change. And its intransigence could undermine the carbon emissions reduction pact that world leaders negotiated and agreed to late last year in Paris. If the US won't cut its carbon emissions, other countries might argue that they don't have to, either.

Activists around the US have been trying to build grassroots support for Congressional action on climate change, particularly policies that would slash carbon emissions, if not eliminate fossil fuel dependence entirely.

This is where Earth Day 2016 comes into the picture in the Rochester area. The Rochester People's Climate Coalition has coordinated a "menu" of Earth Week programs, put together by different local groups and touching on various aspects of climate change. (The menu concept was chosen because many of the events touch on food issues.)

The events include workshops for new and experienced climate activists, a faith-based discussion, and a screening of the film "Forks Over Knives," which will be followed by a panel discussion with three local doctors: Ted Barnett, Thomas Campbell, and Kerry Graff.

"These are kind of momentary plug-ins to ongoing things," says RPCC's Mittiga. "While some of them could be seen as one-offs — attend this film screening — but then there's a panel or a speaker at the end who's pointing people to things that they could do in an ongoing way, whether it's personal changes or getting involved with a movement."

The events are rallying points for people already in the climate movement and a way to engage new people. Since the public and media tend to pay a more attention to green topics on Earth Day, Mittiga says, it's a good opportunity for exposure.

Local activists work on climate issues all year long. Mothers Out Front members campaign against the Bakken oil trains — alternately referred to as bomb trains for their tendency to go up in flames if they derail — that roll through the Rochester area.

And the organization's chapters across the state are building local support for a wind farm off the shores of Long Island. For the project to proceed, state and New York City officials need to sign a power purchase agreement with the project's developer, says Neely Kelley, a Rochester resident and New York State lead organizer for Mothers Out Front.

Local groups have organized climate marches through downtown Rochester; a November march held by the Rochester People's Climate Coalition to show support for the Paris climate agreement drew more than 400 people. And local activists have joined protests against planned natural gas and propane storage facilities along Seneca Lake.

Activists are talking with elected officials at all levels, too. They support town leaders when they advance municipal solar power projects or plans to make their communities more friendly to cyclists; they testify in favor of state policies to boost renewable energy generation; and they try to make climate change an issue in all political races, from Congress on down.

The advocacy is paying off in New York. State officials learned that when they implement climate friendly policies they don't lose supporters, they gain them.

The state's fracking ban is a strong example. An unprecedented number of New Yorkers — not just climate advocates — spoke out against the controversial natural gas extraction method.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has also pushed hard for the expansion of solar power across the state.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman joined with attorneys general in other states to support the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gases. And he's working with AG's in other states, including Massachusetts and California, to probe whether ExxonMobil misled its investors on how climate change, and regulatory efforts aimed at curtailing it, could affect the company's bottom line.

The protests, local initiatives, and state policies create upward pressure for Congress to act on climate change, Kelley says. Activists find that if they start by talking with their neighbors and then their local and state officials, they can affect real change, she says, even if it's slower than they'd like.

It's hard work, and the trick is sustaining the pressure. Earth Day provides a momentary bump, and local climate activists are already planning marches and events for well into the coming months.

Neely Kelley - FILE PHOTO
  • Neely Kelley

"We have to think globally and act locally; as lame and cliché as that might be, it is so true," Kelley says.

A ground of mothers from Pittsford, for example, has far more sway with the Pittsford Town Board than with Cuomo, she says, so that's the place to begin.

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