Earth Day 2015: A Time for Celebration, Rededication, and Cool Calculation

Forty-five years ago, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) established a special national day to celebrate the glory of the Earth and to raise awareness of the need to protect the fragile natural ecosystems upon which all life depends.

Back then, Nelson was already responding to changes in the global environment that he found alarming: rapidly increasing human numbers, accompanied, in rich countries, by historic levels of consumption and attendant deterioration in the quality and accessibility of natural resources. Species extinction and global climate change were not yet part of Earth Day’s vocabulary. But even in the 1970s, Nelson saw a decline in the ease with which the earth’s natural systems could furnish ample food and fresh water for all its inhabitants and ready supplies of coal, oil, and gas to provide energy for surging industrial demands.

Fast forward to 2015, when every day sees new evidence of lost biodiversity and existential threats to sustainable life from the rapid warming of the earth’s atmosphere. Images in scientific reports taken in a wide variety of environments show the natural world we have known and loved eroding and vanishing before our eyes: calving icescapes, acres of clear-cut forests, shrinking Pacific islands, receding rivers and lakes, decimated animal, bird and insect migrations.

What makes it harder to reverse course is that we are complicit in this unraveling of our only habitat. In our pursuit of comfort and economic growth, we are inexorably involved in inducing and accelerating these often irrevocable natural disruptions. In fact, as agents of these changes, we have earned a label proposed for our age, the Anthropocene, “a geologic chronological term for an epoch that begins when human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s [climate and] ecosystems.”

Clearly, the People’s Climate March, Bill McKibben’s 350.org “Do the Math” campaign, and scientific estimates about our current energy status have raised the ante for Earth Day’s message—as to both goals and action. Cool calculation shows that the fossil fuels we are currently planning to burn—based on the coal, oil, and gas reserves companies now hold, will release 2,795 gigatons of CO2. This amount of CO2 would be 5 times greater than the 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide that scientists estimate can be released into the air without the Earth’s temperature rising above 2 degrees Celsius, the level of warming beyond which the Earth would become virtually uninhabitable for living organisms.

With CO2 emissions growing at 3 per cent per year, cool calculation shows that we “will blow through” the 565 upper limit in but 16 years.  

If the goal is for Earth’s very survival, we no longer have time merely to celebrate its beauty or to rely on practicing the three excellent rules, Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling. We will need to turn off the toxic emissions directly at the source: leave coal, oil and gas in the ground, organize a global divestment of financial assets in fossil fuel companies, and campaign for zero CO2 emissions.

Over all, we need to end the disconnection between what science is warning us and what our political leaders are doing to support a change in lifestyle and behavior commensurate with the dire threat to Earth’s capacity to provide for life.

Alice Day, Chair
Environment and Energy Task Force
Committee for Public Policy and Political Action

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