Earth Day 50: Have We Made any Real Progress?

Posted on April 22, 2020 by Christopher Davis

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. The coronavirus pandemic has consumed the world’s attention, and thus it seems likely that Earth Day and environmental issues will unfortunately get less attention than otherwise might have occurred.

The first Earth Day in 1970 changed my life. In particular, Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, and a little book called The Environmental Handbook, had a powerful influence on my thinking and career path.  I decided my calling was in solving environmental problems, stopping pollution and protecting nature. Over the last 50 years, this has taken me through a brief career in environmental engineering, a rewarding 30 years in environmental law, and most recently economic advocacy to leverage private sector solutions to climate change.

So where are we now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day? There has certainly been progress in building environmental consciousness, institutionalizing environmental protection, developing environmental laws, building a global cadre of environmental professionals, reducing at least the most obvious forms of air and water pollution and cleaning up hazardous waste sites. In most places, at least in the developed world, the air and water are cleaner.

Yet on a macro scale, many indicators of environmental quality have declined significantly since 1970. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the physical impacts of climate change are accelerating, and we are making little progress in implementing the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting average global warming to well under 2 degrees Celsius. Deforestation continues to shrink the world’s tropical forests, biodiversity is being lost, species extinction is accelerating, wetlands are disappearing, and our oceans are becoming degraded. Groundwater and surface water resources are being depleted and nonpoint sources threaten water quality. Toxic pollutants are ubiquitous. By most accounts, the world’s ecosystems are in worse shape than they were in 1970. Our expanding human population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the world’s natural systems on which we all depend.

So, while we have won many battles in environmental protection and the implementation of environmental laws, we are losing the war. The imperatives of economic growth and resource consumption have overwhelmed the forces of environmental protection and conservation. Our generation has been responsible for many great technological and social advances. Yet as we mark the 50th Earth Day, our environmental legacy is troubling.

Perhaps the lessons of the coronavirus crisis—and the need for prevention, global collaboration, and commitment of resources necessary to anticipate and combat such crises-- will enable the kind of concerted action needed to successfully confront the systemic risks of climate change and global ecological degradation. We have the tools and knowledge to solve these problems; we lack only the moral imperative and collective political will to do so--and the sense of urgency that inspired me and so many others on that first Earth Day.

“Happy [50th] Earth Day—Something More to Crow About”

Posted on April 20, 2020 by Jeff Civins

In May of last year, I posted a blog about Earth Day’s upcoming 50th anniversary, highlighting one planned celebration of that landmark event, EarthX, which last year drew a crowd of 175,000 visitors in Dallas and which this year was anticipating over 200,000 attendees.  But the world is a different place today than it was a year ago and EarthX organizers, under the leadership of the environmentalist Trammell S. Crow, developed a Plan B, transforming the event into a virtual, online experience, featuring a series of high profile thought leaders, sharing the objective of EarthX and its founder—to inspire people and organizations to take action towards a more sustainable future worldwide.  Among this year’s virtual programs is its Law and Policy Symposium.

The Symposium had been planned to be a full-day event with sessions on water, public and private lands, the challenges of climate change, and the future of environmental law--with speakers representing a diverse range of perspectives.  Fingers crossed, EarthX is planning to hold that same event on October 22, “Half Earth Day.”  But to celebrate Earth Day on its true birthday, EarthX will be presenting instead a 90-minute virtual program on April 22 at 12 PM Central time/1 PM Eastern Time.

This condensed program includes an EPA Update, from EPA Region 6 Regional Administrator Ken McQueen, and a series of conversations:

  • Between Seth Seigel, NY Times bestselling author of “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What we Drink,” and Brent Fewell, Founder, Earth and Water Law Group, on the topic of our water;
  • Between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Pam Giblin of the Climate Leadership Council, on the challenges of climate change; and
  • Between Yale Professor Dan Esty, editor of  A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, and John C. Cruden, Principal, Beveridge & Diamond and former Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, Department of Justice. 

There will be a special chat room for virtual attendees to ask questions during the presentations and perhaps provision for ongoing online discussions after the Symposium is over. 

To register and to see the complete agenda, go to https://earthx.org/earthxlaw/

The Symposium organizers hope that this year’s virtual program—and the full program in October-- will foster a dialog among diverse perspectives that results in the identification of points on which there might be consensus, and identification of a range of paths forward to inspire people and organizations to take action towards a more sustainable future worldwide.  In these times particularly, a dialog among diverse perspectives seeking a common objective would be something to crow about.

“Happy [50th] Earth Day—Something to Crow About”

Posted on May 23, 2019 by Jeff Civins

In April of next year, the world will be celebrating Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. According to the ultimate source—Wikipedia—Earth Day is now celebrated in more than 193 countries. Among those celebrations is one held annually in Dallas, which this year drew a record crowd of 175,000 visitors. This particular celebration, formerly known as Earth Day Texas and rebranded as EarthX, was adopted by environmentalist Trammell S. Crow in 2011 and turned into the world’s “largest annual environmental exposition and programming initiative.” 

In describing its founder, EarthX’s website notes “[w]ith a focus on inspiring environmental leadership across sectors and party lines, Trammell has succeeded in bringing together people and organizations from all walks of life to explore and collaborate on solutions for some of today’s most pressing environmental [concerns].” For example, at one of EarthX’s events this year, Susan Eisenhower moderated a discussion on climate change by Senators Lindsey Graham (R. SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D. RI), and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry spoke about how innovation is revolutionizing the country’s energy production and consumption. Another of this year’s EarthX events was a Law and Policy Symposium, which, consistent with EarthX’s theme of water, was entitled “Water, Water Everywhere…” The Symposium brought together prominent thought leaders, including ACOEL fellows, representing diverse perspectives to discuss legal and policy implications of a range of pertinent topics.

The Symposium included discussions of: water issues facing Texas (“Don’t mess with Texas”); federal water quality issues (“A River Runs Through It”); coastal issues (“Surf’s Up”); water issues facing cities (“Going with the Flow”); and the water energy interface (Thirst for Power”). A luncheon presentation (“Making Waves”) included the showing of an excerpt from the Emmy-award winning  documentary—“The Sonic Sea”--on the threat oceanic man-made noise poses to marine life, presented by Stephen Honigman, a former general counsel of the U.S.  Navy who is one of the filmmakers.

The federal water quality panel was representative of the dialog the Symposium tried to foster and resulted in a lively discussion of “water of the U.S.” involving Matt Leopold, EPA’s General Counsel, and representatives from the National Wildlife Federation, the American Farm Bureau, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and a moderator and a panelist from private practice. Other prominent speakers at the Symposium included Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, on the topic of water energy interface, former DOJ official John Cruden, on water issues facing cities, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on cooperative federalism (“Keeping Both Oars in the Water”).

Last year’s Symposium entitled “Back to the Future,” also included a diverse array of prominent environmental thought leaders, and focused on the future of: environmental regulation; sustainable and ethical corporate decision-making; disaster response; and domestic energy production. Reflective of the diversity of speakers, the energy session included representatives from the Edison Electric Institute, the American Council on Renewable Energy, the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, and the Climate Leadership Council, as well as a private practitioner.

The Symposium the year before dealt with fundamental environmental issues that included: integrating science into regulatory decision-making; reconciling energy and economic development with protection of the public health and environment; facilitating resolution of environmental disputes associated development; and integrating sustainability into corporate decision-making.

Next year’s Law and Policy Symposium will focus on environmental developments over the past 50 years since the first Earth Day and on where we are, or should be, headed. The Symposium organizers hope that next year’s program will result in a dialog among diverse perspectives that results in the identification of points on which there might be consensus and of a range of paths forward to realize the objective of EarthX--and its patron and founder, Trammell S. Crow--“to inspire people and organizations to take action towards a more sustainable future worldwide.”

Earth Day 2012 Ten Things You Can Do to Help Save the Planet

Posted on April 26, 2012 by Christopher Davis

April 22, 2012 was the 42nd Earth Day, an event that passed with limited notice by most Americans and the news media. For all but a few of us who work in the field, the environment is no longer a “top 10” issue. Yet objectively, the planet is in materially worse shape than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. As a species, we are collectively destroying the earth’s natural systems, plundering its resources and squandering its natural capital at an accelerating and unsustainable rate. The “Tragedy of the Commons” that Garrett Hardin wrote so eloquently about in advance of the first Earth Day is rapidly unfolding just as he predicted.  

On a global scale, the earth’s ecosystems are under siege.  With a human population of 7 billion, and headed for at least 10 billion fairly soon, growing greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change, increasing regional water scarcity, and growing global competition for dwindling resources, the trends are to put it mildly, not looking good.  It has been estimated that we are now consuming the planet’s resources, emitting pollutants and generating waste at about 1.5 times the earth’s carrying capacity. The “externalities” of our ever growing global economy are overwhelming the earth’s ability to assimilate them.
[For a fairly comprehensive and sobering account of the causes, effects and trends of global environmental degradation, I recommend Paul Gilding’s recent book, The Great Disruption.]

If we continue on our present course, our environmental, social and economic systems appear to be headed for collapse, or at least some very rough sledding with unacceptably high (and of course, inequitably distributed) human and ecological casualties.  Catastrophic and irreversible climate change is a growing possibility, if not a probability, without fundamental changes in how we use energy.  After more than 40 years of effort, and a proliferation of “green” policies and initiatives, we are clearly losing the war of environmental protection and conservation.  This is particularly disquieting for those of us who work in the environmental profession, supposedly understand these issues, and presumably care about the real world outcomes.

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