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4 Big Things That Have Happened Since the First Earth Day

Even in this challenging moment, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come – and how much further we have to go.


The very first Earth Day began with 20 million Americans taking to the streets in 1970 to demand greater protection for our planet.

According to the Earth Day Network: “In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, mainstream America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health.”

But everything changed following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. The book was an enormous bestseller – and a watershed moment for the environmental movement. Suddenly, public awareness about the links between pollution and our health were laid bare in a way they never had been before.

People were fed up with a status quo that threatened both their current wellness and the future of the planet.

Fifty years later, we’re in the midst of another environmental emergency – and the urgent need for action has never been greater.

That’s why, for the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, we’re looking back at the incredible legacy of environmental action that this vital holiday helped give rise to. We’re also looking ahead at how you can get involved in an event we’re likely to be talking about 50 years from now: Earth Day 2020. Below, check out four major steps that show how far we’ve come – and one that reveals how far we still have to go.

Founding of the EPA

President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with fossil fuel companies for years to relax the regulations that protect the air we breathe and the planet we share. And while you’ve been taking care of your family during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump’s EPA was giving polluters a free pass, announcing it would not enforce pollution regulations for fossil fuel plants and other facilities indefinitely.

>> Act now: Tell Congress: Covid-19 Is Not an Excuse to Pollute <<

But it wasn’t always – and won’t always be – this way. The EPA has done so much to make America a safe and healthy place to live, and we have faith it will get back to work doing so soon enough.

Responding to years of public concern about pollution, President Richard Nixon established the EPA just a few months after the very first Earth Day, in December 1970, to consolidate the federal government's environmental research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement responsibilities under one big umbrella.

In the relatively short amount of time since, the agency has done such a remarkable job cleaning up the country’s air and waterways that a pollution-choked pre-EPA America – where companies regularly dumped factory waste directly into streams and rivers and used under-tested pesticides – is practically unfathomable to those not old enough to remember it for themselves.

The EPA is the reason we have the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. It’s why DDT is banned, and restrictions were placed on lead-based paints and gasoline, among numerous other incredible achievements. And even as the Trump Administration seeks to undermine the agency’s mission “to protect human health and the environment,” we know the return of a strong, sensible EPA committed to protecting the well-being of all Americans and ready to fight for the future of the planet is only a matter of time.

Adoption of the UNFCCC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international framework for climate action adopted in 1992. It is the “parent treaty” of both the Paris Agreement (below) and the Kyoto Protocol, the latter of which was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005.

According to the UNFCCC secretariat, “The ultimate objective of all three agreements under the UNFCCC is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, in a time frame which allows ecosystems to adapt naturally and enables sustainable development.”

The UNFCCC is often affiliated with another acronym: COP.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC is a yearly international climate conference where nations assess progress and determine next steps for action through the UNFCCC treaty. Sadly, because of the coronavirus pandemic, this incredibly important conference will not be held as planned this year.

Paris Agreement Enters into Force

What’s the Paris Agreement? In short, the most ambitious global climate agreement the world has ever seen.

At COP 21 in December 2015, the world agreed on one primary, overarching goal: to limit “global temperature rise this century [to] well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

To get there – and achieve a number of other goals in the agreement – each country commits to nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which detail how much it will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by and by when. A critical part of NDCs is that they give each country flexibility to tailor climate action plans to fit its own unique circumstances. So for some countries this means focusing primarily on things like land use or fighting deforestation. For others – take India, as just one example – this means focusing on cutting back on coal and transitioning to clean, renewable electricity generation.

To make sure they are on course to meet their targets, negotiators also built in a review mechanism that requires countries to ramp up their commitments and submit new, more ambitious commitments every five years.

The agreement entered into force in November 2016.

(We’re not even going to get into President’s Trump’s decision to begin the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement right now. Because whether that actually happens depends on you!)

People Take to the Streets

In 2014, as world leaders prepared to meet in New York City for a landmark UN summit on climate change, a global movement formed calling for common-sense solutions to the climate crisis. And on September 21, 2014, the climate community made history by gathering more than 400,000 people from every walk of life to take to the streets of New York City to demand action. Thousands more attended 2,646 rallies in 162 countries around the world. But the People’s Climate March wasn’t just about numbers.

We marched for our air, our water, and our land. We marched for clean energy jobs and climate justice. And we marched for our communities and the people we love.

On April 29, 2017, we did it again.

More than 200,000 climate champions mobilized in Washington, DC and other cities across the country for the second People's Climate March. Alongside our founder and chairman, former US Vice President Al Gore, the Climate Reality Project was there to demand urgent action to fight the climate crisis.


Earth Day 2020 Goes Digital

In its fiftieth anniversary year, Earth Day is looking a bit different. Events have shifted online amid the coronavirus pandemic to practice safe social distancing. But the climate community is still coming together in a big way to take action for our planet.

From April 22-24, millions of people around the world will engage online as part of a three-day mobilization to stop the climate crisis.

The centerpiece of this incredible event will be a 72-hour live stream to engage people around the world in collective action to protect our climate and communities. It will feature panels with activists who are on the front lines of the climate crisis, trainings and teach-ins, performances from artists and influencers, and conversations with elected officials to keep people engaged, informed, and inspired during this difficult time.

To join Earth Day Live, you can RSVP for updates on the live stream and tune in online on April 22.

You can also participate in Earth Day 2020 by checking out events globally with the Earth Day Network Earthrise Map, logging your own digital action, or striking digitally with the Fridays for Future Digital Movement.