Wednesday, April 22, is Earth Day 2015, the 45th celebration of what started out as a true grassroots movement—the environmental likes of which we haven’t seen since.
Last year, on Earth Day 2014, I wrote about Americans’ declining concerns about natural resource issues and the slackening of our environmental laws. I questioned whether we still have the intestinal fortitude to take to the streets today in support of our environment. I asked what Earth Day 2064 would look like.
I think I may have been a little optimistic. I’m not sure 50 years from now there will be an Earth Day. So instead of looking far into the future this year, let’s gaze back into the recent past—just since Earth Day 2014—and see what the planet has endured in the past 12 months and if there is cause to have hope for the future.
The bad news since Earth Day 2014
1. A new video from NASA, released in November 2014, became the first simulation to show in ultrafine detail how carbon dioxide moves through the atmosphere and travels around the globe. The climate model depicted in the video is one of the highest-resolution ever created, at approximately 64 times greater than that of typical global climate models. If you think any of us can escape from human-caused global warming, a viewing of this video will dispel that myth.
2. Last year, in November, the United Nations reported that only 50 parts per million (ppm) of greenhouse gases now stands between disaster and us. Anything higher than 450 ppm (we’re now at 400 ppm) would change the climate so dramatically that neither humans nor ecosystems could easily adapt.
3. In May 2014, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research issued a report on the ice sheet of East Antarctica. An “ice plug”—a small rim of ice resting on bedrock below sea level, which currently holds back the ice behind it—might melt away in coming centuries if ocean waters warm. If it goes, a global sea-level rise of nine to 13 feet would ensue.
4. Also in May 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report titled National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites. At least 30 major historic buildings in the United States are at risk due to rapid climate change, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York; the Johnson Space Center in Texas; the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; the Gold Rush-era town of Groveland, California; and historic Jamestown in Virginia.
5. An article in the journal PLOS Biology, published in February 2015, showed that national parks and nature preserves bring in far more money than governments spend on them for conservation. Yet financial support for our public lands is continually being cut.
7. World Wildlife Fund published its Living Planet Report 2014 last September. The news was not good: between 1970 and 2010, the planet has lost 52 percent of its biodiversity. The previous WWF report, published in 2012, showed a decline of only 28 percent over a similar time frame.
8. In June 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity reported that the USDA Wildlife Services kills millions of animals every year. In light of the subsequent WWF Living Planet Report 2014, that seems all the more tragic.
9. Culling animals that have recovered from the brink of extinction—and that also represent the wild as no other native North American animals do—was on the agenda for federal and state governments in the winter of 2014-2015.
10. A new type of poacher proliferated in 2014: redwood poachers.
The good news since Earth Day 2014
Fortunately, there were some strides last year, as well:
1. Climate change deniers—even those serving in Congress—can have a change of heart.
2. Last summer, an article that appeared in The Atlantic posited that the millennial generation is more interested—by a 23-percentage-point margin—than older generations in traveling abroad. That means that we are growing a new generation of those who will care for the outdoors.
3. Not only young people but veterans of recent wars, too, are finding solace in the outdoors, building more advocates.
4. All of this new outdoor activity can lead to crowds, but Ken Burns, filmmaker and director/producer of the PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, has said that he is happy to see the throngs at national parks and put up with all that they entail. “Traffic jams are an important part of democracy,” he has stated. “If there were no traffic jams, the national parks would have no constituency.”
5. In the midst of last year’s Ebola outbreaks, it was demonstrated that our natural places are extremely important for our health because of the cures and medicines they hold. That can only make them more valuable in the eyes of the world.
6. We now have modern models of good land stewardship to follow, such as in the Great Bear Rain Forest.
7. There are also new models coming into play to protect endangered species. In the West, sage grouse advocates are hoping that a new strategy, termed “cooperative conservation,” will avoid the costly, lengthy and hassle-filled legal battles that official endangered species listing involves.
8. In 2014, renowned evolutionary biologist and author E. O. Wilson got new attention for his Half Earth theory, which suggests that we set aside 50 percent of the world for wildlife.
9. In the meantime, there have been notable gains for Canada lynx, elk, pandas, sharks and wood bison.
10. A pledge to count the world’s tigers by 2016 was made at a conference in September 2014 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A science-based count should help to create more effective strategies for protecting the animals.
The newly silenced
Like New Year’s reflections or college graduation speeches, it’s good to have annual Earth Days to assess every 12 months what’s been accomplished and what is yet to do. Unfortunately, this past year saw something we never had to contend with before: those in positions of legal power who wish to stop us from even publicly talking about the condition of our Earth.
Just a month ago, I wrote about the governor of Florida, who allegedly banned the words “climate change” from the language of state officials while on duty. It sounded outrageous, until something similar happened in my own state of Wisconsin. Just a week ago, Tia Nelson, the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands executive director, was put under orders not to discuss “global warming” on state time. To me, that seems odd, to stop someone who is responsible for our public lands from talking about what may be the most important issue facing them. But according to the board, working on climate change—or even mentioning it while at work—is a waste of public funds.
I should mention that Tia Nelson is the daughter of Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day.
Do you think Earth Day itself is “endangered”? Next year, will I be able to talk about Earth Day 2016? Will you?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,