Don’t Look Back; We’re Not Going That Way
Will Charouhis, Founder of Forces of Nature
This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Except it’s doesn’t feel like much of a celebration. Fifty years ago, America reacted to the terrors of the Cold War and the Vietnam War with that same dogged innovation that built this country. In 1969, NASA sent men to the moon. That same year, Boeing flew the 747 inaugural test flight, debuting the world’s first-ever jumbo jet. And in 1970, IBM introduced the floppy disc, allowing information to be shared across computers-foretelling the birth of Microsoft in 1975 and Apple in 1976, and igniting the race to the internet technology we all enjoy today. On the heels of that innovation, the first Earth Day, too, was a celebration. Some twenty million Americans-one tenth of the population of the United States at that time-took part in mass demonstrations, marches, and environmental cleanups. Americans’ enthusiastic turnout brought a decade of change: Republican President Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and working across the political aisle, the Democratic Congress took off with a bang, passing the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. That decade ended with the first-ever United Nations World Climate Conference in 1979, just 9 years after our first Earth Day. America was off to a strong start, and just in time, as the problem of pollution and its’ potential for causing global warming mounted. But as the years rolled away from the Americans who participated in that first Earth Day in 1970, we somehow got lost. The next World Climate Conference would not be held until 1990 and had moved from a conference of just scientists to one with political actors as well. The third World Climate conference didn’t occur until 2009, and by that time, though China had overtaken America as the largest carbon emitter, America still held the unworthy mention of the world’s largest historical carbon emitter ever. Fast forward from America’s gunshot start in the battle against climate change, begun at the first Earth Day in 1970, and America’s presence was sorely missed at this past year’s World Climate Conference in Madrid, Spain. That first conference of 2000 scientists in 1970 had grown to 26,706 attendees in 2019. It was my first ever, and I arrived to a series of massive halls jammed with the country pavilions, showcasing their impressive daily programs blitzing the now dire state of the planet, and the solutions they are each bringing to the table. They ranged from Indonesia’s colorful and elaborate structure, to even a kiosk erected by the small country of Kuwait, all eager to share their country’s action on climate change.
Stories unfolded that in past years, America had had the flagship pavilion-the center hub of the now-yearly climate conference, hosting the biggest and best climate events. Remember, after all, we had begun the technological age -- surely we had a lot to brag about in every area of technology—especially when it comes to climate. Right? Except this past year, America’s pavilion was nowhere to be found. America has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, effective this coming November 2020, and had sent the smallest delegation since the conferences began-flying in just 78 official delegates this year. It’s unclear how our gusto of 50 years ago unraveled. Surely, the problem today cannot be placed at any one person’s feet. The climate science has now become mainstream -- The Paris Agreement -- the international treaty on climate change -- sets the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C. Emissions have to stop for temperatures to stop rising. Period. To do that, the world needs to stop emitting greenhouse gases, now. If we don’t take action now, climate models show that in 50 more years by 2070, the streets of Miami will flood every single day.
Yet as we close in on fifty years after that first Earth Day, we just ended the hottest decade documented in human history. Although scientists have spent the last 50 years predicting the severe consequences of global warming, we weren’t listening. But with disastrous images of our crumbling planet now rolling across our screens with alarming regularity, the science can no longer be ignored. The climate crisis has arrived full throttle. In the last 10 years, our planet started to melt--measurably. In 2012, Greenland and Arctic sea ice hit historic lows. Antarctica’s glaciers, too, began an inevitable retreat, melting at breakneck speeds so fast they can be caught on camera. Almost every single glacier on Earth is now shrinking. As we marched toward the 50th anniversary of our first Earth Day our world grew hotter, slipping into its’ new reality. Across the planet, the last 5 years were the hottest ever recorded. From the extreme floods in Venice to the fires in Australia, the pictures of the death and destruction barreling in half a century after our first Earth Day are those imagined in a bad science–fiction movie-except they are real. More than half of all industrial greenhouse gas pollution since the Industrial Revolution have been created in the past 30 years. In the last decade, fossil fuel emissions have risen 10% higher, and are still increasing. On the cusp of our 50th Earth Day, the state of the planet is dire. In Miami, the inaction this last decade has ceded the inevitable fate of coral reefs, the eventual displacement of 2.4 million residents, and the looming loss of our own Florida Keys. And the effects of this science experiment we’ve conducted on our planet are just beginning; this story we’ve written is hurtling us towards an uninhabitable planet. Our response to this crisis will shape the future of humanity. So why can’t we get this thing done? What explains the lack of decisive progress on human-driven climate change? We’ve had 50 years to get this right. The roster of disastrous climate stats surely implies we are not on the right path. Did any good come from the death and destruction of the last few years? Catastrophic climate change is our new reality. Our generation aims to solve it. In the fight against climate change, an army of young climate activists stood up, calling for the political, social and economic solutions necessary to fix things. After one long decade of deadly disasters, we’ve finally got the world’s attention. A climate activist was Time’s Person of the year! More than 7.5 million people have taken to the streets in protest, twice in the last 6 months! More and more people are coming around to the science. We’ve proven we have the technology to solve the crisis. What we need are the public might and the political will.
The last 50 years ended without enough action to save our planet. Almost everything and yet nothing has changed.
As the pandemic has shown us, it is impossible for our huge unnatural industrial population to avoid great disruption to the natural earth. Our progress, much celebrated, was never going to go unchecked. Nothing in life ever does. But the message of hope is this: While it is too late to stop climate change, it is not too late to slow it. Every action we take will slow the effects of global warming incrementally, giving us time to adapt to the changes, and therefore giving us a better chance for survival.
The photos of the destruction wreaked by the climate this past year, and the recent photos of the death caused by the pandemic, can serve as reminders: to use our will to listen to the scientists. Together, one person at a time, one city at a time, one state at a time, we can change America’s course. America has got to do this. It is unfathomable and unacceptable for America to take any role except leader.
Yes, it’s a terrible problem. And yes, we must fix it. And yes, we can. The solutions are here. Some of the solutions are even profitable. And the solutions will make our lives better, leading us to longer and healthier lives. Isn’t that exactly what we are all striving for, as we shelter in place?
Do we have what it takes? I hope so, but I guess we’ll see pretty soon. As the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day arrives, I am reminded the sand in the hourglass is running out. And I am emboldened by the millions of my peers who remain steadfast in their call to action.
Together, we are unstoppable youth calling for immediate action to stop climate change. One of the people. By the people. For the planet. Because there is no planet B. We’ve all just got to do something. Stand with us. It’s Time.
Will Charouhis, Founder of Forces of Nature