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Litany of missed opportunity

On my first Earth Day, which was everyone’s first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, I was in my last year at Palo Alto High School. The event planning office was not far up the road, so we kind of all knew about it. The inspiration was a recent massive oil spill in southern California, which became the catalyst. A young activist named Dennis Hayes, a couple of politicians and others organized a huge protest between spring break and final exams, and something like 20 million Americans rose up to protest pollution and damage to the environment.

Twenty million Americans—that’s 10% of the US population at the time—turned out in streets and parks, in cities and towns and thousands of universities, to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development and its legacy of serious human health impacts. The event united disparate groups, which had been fighting oil spills, air pollution, toxic dumps and the loss of wilderness and wildlife, around shared values. And it achieved rare political alignment, supported by Republicans and Democrats, business and labor leaders. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of a succession of environmental laws.

I can’t celebrate 52 years since the first Earth Day, however, without reflecting on our many missed opportunities to curb the scale of the global disaster we call climate change. Our attempts to limit pollution and greenhouse gasses, and the competing business interests that stymied our progress. Now I'm wandering with melancholy through some of the warnings we’ve had along the way, if only we’d taken them seriously.

  • 1856: Eunice Newton Foote, an amateur scientist and prominent suffragette, was the first to test the heat-trapping abilities of different gases. She demonstrated that carbon dioxide and water vapor trapped heat and that, “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.”

  • 1896: A Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, may have been the first person to imagine that humanity could change the climate on a global scale, though his work wasn’t widely read.

  • 1912: An article first published in Popular Mechanics magazine recognized that by burning coal and emitting carbon dioxide, the Earth's temperature would increase and that "the effect may be considerable in a few centuries."

  • 1952: A presidential commission detailed increasing dependence on foreign natural resources, argued for the dire need for Americans to end their reliance on oil, and for the potential of solar energy to fulfill the gap.

  • 1955: The Air Pollution Control Act became the first legislation addressing air pollution. But it included no federal enforcement mechanism; regulation was largely left to individual states.

  • 1957: Scientist Roger Revelle published findings in the journal Tellus that the ocean couldn’t absorb all of the carbon dioxide released in industrial fuel emissions and that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could rise significantly as a result.

  • 1959: The physicist Edward Teller (known, by the way, as the “father of the hydrogen bomb”) told the American Petroleum Institute (API) that a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. “I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”

  • 1960: Worldwide levels of carbon dioxide climbed above 300 parts per million.

  • 1962: Congress approved funds for a study by the US Surgeon General into the health effects caused by automobile exhaust. In the US alone, there were 74 million cars on the road.

  • 1963: 83 million Americans owned cars. In response to growing evidence of a link between smog and car emissions, California mandated devices that return unburned gases to the combustion chambers in all cars, the first such requirement in the country.

  • 1965: President Johnson's Science Advisory Committee stated that “pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air,” with effects that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.” Summarizing the findings, the head of the API warned the industry: “Time is running out.” The Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act set the first federal automobile emission standards.

  • 1966: The first Endangered Species legislation authorized protection for endangered domestic fish and wildlife.

  • 1968: In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich argued that the world’s environmental problems were caused by overpopulation. At 3.5 billion people, the population of the world had more than doubled in the past half century. Stewart Brand published The Whole Earth Catalog, which listed products for self-sustainable living. And the crew of Apollo 8 took the first photograph of the Earth from space. “Earthrise,” became the iconic image of the environmental movement.

  • 1969: An oil well blowout in Santa Barbara spilled over 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean for 11 days. The destruction and extreme pollution of the California coastline led directly to energy industry reforms. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River appeared to catch fire when oil and chemicals floating on the surface ignited and caused flames over five stories high.

  • 1970: The first Earth Day was April 22. Leading up to it, ads amplified the urgency of the environmental problems facing the world: “It can be the beginning of the end of pollution. Or the beginning of the end.” Following the outcry over the Santa Barbara oil spill, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act requiring federal agencies to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for any legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency was established. General Motors' president Edward Cole promised “pollution free” cars by 1980, citing the removal of lead from gas and the addition of catalytic converters to stop deadly emissions. Two giant oil companies, Shell and BP, began research to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases.

  • 1971: Greenpeace was founded, largely to combat global warming.

  • 1972: Congress passed the Clean Water Act over president Nixon’s veto. A paper in the journal Nature revealed how much climate scientists knew about the basic workings of the global climate over 40 years ago, and accurately predicted the next 30 years of global warming.

  • 1973: Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife and ecosystems.

  • 1973–1974: During the Arab Oil Embargo, energy demands exceeded supplies in the US for first time. Gas prices skyrocketed and the price oil increased 400% from $3 to $12 a barrel. The crisis fueled immediate research into alternative energy and new dialogue about energy security.

  • 1974: Chemists Frank Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina claimed that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could destroy ozone molecules and erode the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

  • 1977: Exxon scientists told management there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, according to a later lawsuit filing. President Carter announced his national energy plan on TV, with goals to lower energy demand, reduce gas consumption, cut the portion of oil imported into the US, increase domestic coal production, and increase solar energy use. His goal: 20% of the nation’s energy should come from renewable resources by the year 2000. The Department of Energy was formed, accountable for research, technology development, energy regulation, nuclear weapons, and energy data collection and analysis.

  • 1978: the US banned the use of CFCs in aerosol cans, but the phase-out of CFCs in products didn’t begin until the early 1990s.

  • 1979: President Carter appointed Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes as head of the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute and allocated billions for solar research—one of the only federal programs dedicated to rethinking the energy system. The meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, PA, caused the evacuation of 140,000 people. The clean-up would take more than ten years. Solar heaters were installed on the White House roof to support Carter’s Federal Solar Research Institute. He argued, “we must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.”

  • 1980: The price of oil jumped to $30 a barrel. In the early 1980s, the world population hit 4.5 billion; the total economic loss caused by great weather and flood catastrophes increased nearly 55% compared to the previous decade; and CO2 concentration hit 335ppm, up from 315ppm in 1960. Despite the legislation and the enforcement agency created in the previous decade, no significant progress could be detected on most environmental fronts.

  • 1981: An internal Exxon memo warned “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population)”. President Reagan issued an order giving the Office of Management and Budget the power to regulate environmental proposals before they become public, cut the EPA’s budget by 12% and its staff by 11%. The Federal Solar Research Institute’s budget was cut dramatically. The number of enforcement cases submitted to the EPA declined by 56%.

  • 1985: A Nature magazine article provided evidence confirming the ozone hole over the Antarctic, creating a new wave of media attention on the now-stalled environmental movement. The ozone was estimated to have been declining at about 4% per decade since the 1970s.

  • 1986: The solar water heating system on the White House roof, installed by President Carter, was dismantled in Reagan’s second term.

  • 1987: The Montreal Protocol was signed by the US, Japan, Canada, and 21 other countries, to phase out ozone-depleting CFCs by the year 2000.

  • 1988: NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the US Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”. In the US presidential campaign, George Bush Sr says: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect … As president, I intend to do something about it.” A confidential report prepared for Shell’s environmental conservation committee found CO2 could raise temperatures by 1°C to 2°C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It urged rapid action by the energy industry: “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilize the situation.” The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide balanced scientific information regarding climate change and release periodic assessments.

  • 1989: US industry groups establish the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group that challenges the science on global warming and delays action to reduce emissions. Exxon, Shell and BP join between 1993-94. The George H.W. Bush's administration established the Global Change Research Program; congress mandated further action the following year to improve understanding of, among other things, global climate change. But it emerged that his administration censored Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony, altering his conclusions about global warming data to make them seem less certain.

  • 1990: The twenty-year anniversary of Earth Day was once again organized by Denis Hayes. By now a global event, 200 million people in 141 countries participated, lifting environmental issues onto the world stage and helping boost recycling efforts worldwide. Exxon funded two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer, who disputed the mainstream consensus on climate science. The two had previously been paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer stated that being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry did not influence his research.

  • 1991: Shell’s public information film Climate of Concern acknowledged there was a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation”. Four out of five Americans believed pollution threatened their quality of life and 75% believed current anti-pollution laws were too weak, according to a paper published in the Geographical Journal.

  • 1992: At the Rio Earth summit, countries signed on to the world’s first international agreement to stabilize greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system. This established the UN framework convention on climate change. Bush Sr. said: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.”

  • 1997: Two months before the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil (later merged with Exxon) ran an ad in The New York Times titled “Reset the Alarm,” saying: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”

  • 1998: The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC.

  • 2006: Al Gore, who lost the previous year’s presidential race to George H.W. Bush, published An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. In tandem with the release of the documentary film of the same name, he kicked off his campaign to educate people about global warming.

  • 2009: US senator Jim Inhofe, whose main donors are in the oil and gas industry, led the “Climategate” misinformation attack on scientists on the opening day of the crucial UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which ended in disarray.

  • 2013: Research by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, revealed that just 90 companies were responsible for producing two-thirds of the carbon that had entered earth’s atmosphere since the start of the industrial age in the mid-18th century.

  • 2016: After protests about the wording on its website, the API removed a claim that the human contribution to climate change was “uncertain.”

  • 2017: Exxon, Chevron and BP each donated at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.

  • 2018: The 4th National Climate Assessment was released. Don Wuebbles of the University of Illinois, an author on the assessment, said, "I don’t think any of us imagined that it would be as bad as it’s already gotten.”

  • 2019: The United Nations Climate Summit found that “1.5°C is the socially, economically, politically and scientifically safe limit to global warming by the end of this century,” and set a deadline for achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Mohammed Barkindo, secretary general of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and other oil states, said climate campaigners are the biggest threat to the industry and claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about global warming.

  • 2021: In the first instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, scientists recorded that climate change was widespread, rapid, and intensifying. It’s in every region and across the whole climate system. Many of the observed changes are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years. However, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change. While benefits for air quality would come quickly, it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize. The report warned that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be out of reach.

  • 2022: Historical events, including the worldwide pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, led to wide fluctuations in oil prices, rising to as much as $140 per barrel. And 69% of US adults favor the US taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050.

  • 2023: As we mark the occasion of Earth Day today, the world population is estimated by the United Nationsto have exceeded eight billion souls, relying on a healthy earth to live healthy lives.

Note: since you made it this far, you might be interested in this sliding interactive graphic, correlating this timeline with carbon dioxide emissions, in an article from The Guardian: Half a century of dither and denial – a climate crisis timeline

Sources, among others:

©2023 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: NYC Dept. of Records and Information Services: About one million people participated in the first Earth Day celebrations in New York City. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License


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