Earth Day, a 45-year old celebration of the Earth and call to protect it, falls annually on April 22. While it functions primarily as a symbolic reminder of the way that humanity and nature must agree to co-exist, it is also an opportunity to highlight and incite action. This year’s Earth Day comes at an especially prominent moment in the global effort to confront climate change, and there are a number of efforts underway to make it a memorable one.
President Obama is spending Earth Day in Florida, the state that currently best encapsulates the political, cultural, economic, and environmental facets of climate change. Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, has charted an unimpressive course around the issue, mostly by ignoring it. Two major Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is yet to declare officially, and Senator Marco Rubio, hail from the state, which is pretty evenly split between Republican and Democratic voting blocks. Much of Florida’s population lives close to sea level — a sea level that is rising due to climate change. And then there’s the Everglades, one of America’s most treasured environmental assets.
“The Everglades is one of the most special places in our country,” Obama said in his weekly address announcing the trip. “But it’s also one of the most fragile. Rising sea levels are putting a national treasure — and an economic engine for the South Florida tourism industry — at risk. So climate change can no longer be denied, or ignored.”
This latest effort by the Obama Administration to highlight climate change is part of an ongoing push to make the issue a cornerstone of his final years in office, and to build momentum going into the major Paris climate talks at the end of the year. After devoting some time recently to pointing out the impacts of climate change on health and families, his trip to the Everglades is meant to pivot the conversation to protecting local businesses and economies.
“We’ll be spending the week showing exactly what we’re doing to tackle one of our country’s greatest challenges,” said Brian Deese, a senior adviser to Obama on energy and climate issues, in a blog post. This includes showcasing the economic value of National Parks, focusing on conservation and climate resilience, and working with farmers, ranchers, and other land owners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Since coming into existence at the dawn of the environmental movement in 1970, Earth Day has grown into a global phenomenon that extends in some ways into a full week or month.
“Earth Day just keeps getting bigger,” Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, told ThinkProgress. “The developing world has really embraced it.”
Rogers said what these communities most latch onto is a notion EDN calls “environmental democracy” which involves giving people the skills — through civic action, town hall meetings, letter writing campaign — to engage in ways they couldn’t before.
According to Rogers, the Earth Day movement, which EDN refers to as the world’s largest non-secular celebration, is growing fastest in India and China. She said the movement is partner oriented and this year includes partnerships with boy and girl scouts, the popular video game Angry Birds, high schools, the NAACP, the tech community, and others. She also said it’s a year-round endeavor.
“When you talk about Earth Day you’re talking about mass movements,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it in the environmental community.”
Another new thing about Earth Day this year is it marks the inaugural Climate Education Week, a week of lesson plans and activities for K-12 students designed to help them learn about climate change.
“Having a climate education week seems like a natural extension of Earth Day,” Minda Berbeco of the National Center For Science Education, told ThinkProgress. “What is the biggest environmental challenge we are dealing with right now? Climate change. What is one of the largest challenges relating to climate change right now? Education — especially because students are going to be the ones who have to deal with this in the future.”
Berbeco said there are many different ways to educate students on climate change, and this often depends on the facilities available as well as the cultural and political factors present in the community. When parents, administrators, or politicians push back on the teaching of climate change in classrooms, it puts educators in a difficult position, “when all they want to do is teach science, and that’s unfortunate.”
There is also the challenge of making climate change sound too bad, too dire, or too hopeless.
“There is a really big risk of being too negative,” said Berbeco. “This can be avoided by putting a positive spin on how much students can do about it, by empowering them, and by letting them know they have the capacity to learn and do things about climate change.”
On Saturday, April 18, Earth Day Network co-hosted a Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As part of the event, which drew some 250,000 people and included performances by Usher, No Doubt, and others, Denis Hayes, the organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, spoke of the challenges faced by today’s youth in confronting climate change.
“Climate justice is the issue facing this generation,” he said. “Ruthless, powerful carbon companies are buying votes and lying like the cigarette industry did for so long. So far, they are winning. The main power on the other side is you — you and billions of other people who actually care about tomorrow.”
Matt Roney, a research associate at the Earth Policy Institute, told ThinkProgress that on Earth Day, leaders and politicians need to “acknowledge that the biggest threats to human civilization aren’t armed conflict but the systematic undermining of the natural systems that are the foundation of the global economy.”
Feeding into Obama’s push to tie environmental and economic issues together, he said we can “only overpump, overplow, overfish, deforest, and pollute for so long. We could reach tipping points on any or all of these trends, after which there’s no turning back.”