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Earth Day founder thinks we’re close to political breakthrough on climate

Denis Hayes predicts the 50th anniversary in 2020 will be "the largest, most diverse action in human history."

Denis Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day in 1970, speaking to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington DC on April 22, 2019. CREDIT: J. Romm/ThinkProgress.
Denis Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day in 1970, speaking to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington DC on April 22, 2019. CREDIT: J. Romm/ThinkProgress.

Denis Hayes, the principal national organizer of the first Earth Day, in April 1970, said on Monday that the upcoming 50th anniversary next year will be “the largest, most diverse action in human history.” The goal is to engage three billion people around the world with a focus on climate change.

Thanks to a resurgence in youth-led climate activism, Hayes told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that “2020 will be for climate what 1970 was for other environmental issues.”

The mobilization of young people demanding aggressive policies to address climate change has made Hayes especially optimistic that next year will be a watershed moment for the movement. From global school strikes led by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg to the Green New Deal, led by the youth-based Sunrise Movement and 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), young people across the globe are making it clear they will not accept inaction.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Hayes said that if he had one message to deliver to the young people today pushing for big change like the Green New Deal, it would be: “Don’t let anyone tell you what’s impossible.”

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Back when Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) chose him to organize the first Earth Day, Hayes was only 25 years old (see NBC News video below), and most of the people working with him on the first Earth Day were even younger.

“Most social movements are powered by youth,” he told reporters.

So even though President Donald Trump has “taken a wrecking ball to international climate treaties,” denied well-established climate science, “appointed the two worst EPA administrators in history,” and “pledged to resuscitate the dead coal industry,” Hayes said, “I’m confident that the end is in sight.”

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That’s because “America can turn on a dime” when people demand change. It happened with marriage equality, said Hayes, it happened when the world came together to save the ozone layer in the 1980s, after the discovery of the ozone hole — and it happened a half century ago.

The 20 million Americans who turned out in April 1970 for Earth Day “catapulted the environment from a second-tier issue to top-tier issue in politics,” Hayes explained. The result was that pro-pollution members of Congress were defeated that fall, and “powerful laws that had been unthinkable in 1969 became unstoppable by the end of 1970.”

Within five years of the first Earth Day, “America had passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act,” fuel economy standards for cars, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and several other laws. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, and lead was banned in both paint and gasoline.

Today, Hayes noted, awareness and concern about climate change are at their highest level ever, particularly among young people. Indeed, a February survey revealed that concern about climate change among all voters — including conservative Republicans — had hit its highest level ever. The Green New Deal in particular has sparked a national conversation, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have embraced climate action as a top-tier issue.

That’s why Hayes said he is working to mobilize an “army of digital natives,” young people connected online as part of the Vote Earth global initiative. The goals are to register one million young and new voters around the world, and to educate and activate all voters to favor climate candidates in key elections around the world, including the U.S. presidential election.