April 2017: Sterling at the First Earth Day

 

 

 

 

 

The First Earth Day by Sterling Miller

In 1969, I was a first-year graduate student at the University of Washington taking an interdisciplinary class on the environment, which attracted students from a very diverse set of disciplines—from biologists (like me) to engineers and social scientists.  The course was taught by Geographer Richard Cooley.  In this class we learned of a national conference on “The Environment and the Developing Professional” to be held later that year in Arlee House, West Virginia, that was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.   The idea was to be sure attendees to the conference were versed, to some degree, in the many human activities affecting the environment and what could be done about them.   Admission to the all-expenses-paid conference required an essay and application, and I completed one and was accepted.

The keynote speaker at this conference was Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson.   Nelson was well-known as the foremost visionary and activist on environmental issues in the congress.   Nelson spoke about many issues, but one of his main pitches was for a national day to recognize the importance of the environment to life on earth and promote activism in protecting the earth.   Nelson was promoting this idea which had previously been proposed at a UNESCO conference that same year by peace activist John McConnell.

The attendees were from colleges across the USA, and at that conference we brainstormed a campus-based national framework for the first Earth Day which was held the following year, in 1970.  It has been celebrated ever since on the same date, April 22.   Last year the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change was signed on Earth Day.   Climate change is the largest environmental challenge facing our planet today, but I don’t recall any discussions about it at our conference, even though we now know the basic physics behind the greenhouse effect causing climate change had been known for a century.

This year, Earth Day will feature the March for Science (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_for_Science) across the US, followed by the Peoples’ Climate Mobilization on April 29, (https://350.org/april-29-2017-lets-march/).

At the Arlee House, we also drafted a letter to President Richard Nixon urging him to create a federal agency to oversee environmental issues in the United States and to coordinate action to address them.    Nixon later created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is very similar to the vision we had proposed to him.  Of course, I don’t suggest that our letter was responsible for this action, but I like to believe that it helped.

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Earth Day 2017 – Time to Address Climate Change

The importance of being aware of our environment is more important now than ever before.   This is because we are changing the environment of the earth in ways that may make it uninhabitable for many species of life with whom we share the earth and, perhaps, even ourselves.   Earth Day is a good time to become more aware of the many threats posed by the ways humans are changing the climate, and find ways you can help to assure that the worst impacts of human-caused climate change can be avoided.  Earth Day is about individual actions to protect our environment, and it requires individual action by each of us to address it.

When I was a boy, environmental action involved working with my dad to ensure that our campsites were left cleaner than we found them.  In college where I studied biology, I learned about many more widespread environmental problems such as natural resource depletion, pesticide and herbicide contamination, habitat destruction, and over population.  I wasn’t aware then, 45 years ago, of the threats posed by increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere causing the climate to warm, even though the potential for this had been known for almost a century and the impacts were already starting to be documented.  In the last 30 years, however, the science has become unavoidably clear and the impacts of climate change are evident all around us, and these are accelerating in number and degree.  The predictions of the early models of climate change are all supported by the recent decades of data.

The movie An Inconvenient Truth, narrated by Al Gore in 2006, was appropriately named.  The climate is warming, it is warming at a faster rate than ever known previously in the earth’s history, and human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, are the cause of the largest component of the warming trend.  These are plain facts supported by a huge amount of research and acknowledged by almost every credible scientist involved in studying the earth’s climate.  Essentially, the only disagreement with this conclusion comes from people taking money from the fossil-fuel industry and politicians unwilling to tell their constituents that the ways of the past cannot continue if the earth is to be habitable for human societies and the ecosystems that now exist.  That would be “inconvenient” for their chances of reelection, and also inconvenient, in the short run, as new ways of fueling our economies and lifestyles would have to be found.

The physics behind climate change is well-known now.  Arguing against this is like arguing against gravity.  The sun’s radiant energy penetrates the earth’s atmosphere, hits the earth, and much bounces back toward space.  However, instead of reaching space, much of the radiant energy hits the carbon dioxide and methane gases produced by human activities and is reflected back toward earth.   This is the “greenhouse effect,” similar to what happens in a greenhouse when the radiant energy penetrates the glass on the way in but is reflected by the glass instead of escaping.  The increasing concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is perhaps best illustrated by the long-term record at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii (see graph), but has been documented in many other places as well.  Over a longer time period, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere can be documented by, for example, examining the amount of CO2 in air bubbles that have been trapped in Antarctic ice for hundreds of thousands of years.  These data indicate that the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere is now more than 380 parts per million (ppm). In contrast, in the last 400,000 years, it varied between 180 and 300 ppm.

The corresponding change in the earth’s temperature has been similarly dramatic (see graphic for temperature differences from the average since 1880).  The blue indicates temperatures below the average and the red indicates those above the average.   The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for May 2016 was the highest in the last 137 years, 1.57˚ F above the mean of 58.6˚F.  Last year was the warmest globally since records have been kept, followed closely by 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013 and all other years since 1998 (except 1999). The warming also occurs in the earth’s oceans, resulting in coral bleaching as the coral begins to die from exposure to higher temperatures.

The impacts of climate change are many and severe.  They range from increased frequency and severity of storms, like hurricanes and typhoons, to more severe and frequent droughts that can disrupt agricultural systems or cause flooding of low-lying coastal areas, as well as changes in ecosystems that make it difficult to impossible for animals to adapt because they are occurring so fast.  These ecosystem effects are currently most evident in higher latitudes where warming trends are larger.  One example of this is the decreasing extent of the polar icecap on which polar bears depend.  I once had the privilege of tagging polar bears on the arctic ice with polar bear expert and my friend, Dr. Steven Amstrup, who now works for Polar Bears International.  See the website (https://polarbearsinternational.org/climate-change/climate-change-faq/) for Steve’s answers about the threats facing polar bears from climate change.

Many other wildlife species also will be affected by climate change, with estimates of as many as a quarter of the earth’s diversity of animals, birds, and plants facing extinction unless current climate trends are reversed. (See https://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Threats-to-Wildlife/Global-Warming/Effects-on-Wildlife-and-Habitat.aspx for some examples from the National Wildlife Federation, the organization I once worked for.)

There is no technological fix for climate change other than reversing the trend of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.  However inconvenient we may find it to have to change our habits and lifestyles to accomplish this objective pales in comparison to the cost of not taking the necessary steps.   Some scientists think it may already be too late to reverse catastrophic impacts of climate change, as there are decades of still-increasing warming that are inevitable even if we stop burning fossil fuels altogether immediately (and there is no likelihood that will happen).  This Earth Day (April 22) is a good time to tell our nation’s and the world’s leaders that we are ready to take the steps necessary to save our planet, regardless of how inconvenient it may be in the short term.

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