Today is Earth Day and as the urgency of the climate change problem looms heavily over the entire world, it is a day that should not go without notice. This year’s Earth Day represents the beginning of a two-year initiative called the Green Generation Campaign. The campaign was established in the same spirit as the “Greatest Generation” that met the challenges facing the world in the years during and following the conclusion of World War II; individuals working together to create meaningful change in the fight to slow and halt climate change. Through individual and collective efforts, supporters of the Green Generation Campaign will take measures to reduce their impact on the environment (for a list of ways you can make changes to reduce your own carbon footprint, see the Earth Day 2009 website). APUS was an early participant in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and believes that its online form of instruction is ideally suited to assist in the reduction of its carbon footprint (see my blog article about APUS’ involvement in the ACUPCC).
The first Earth Day was celebrated on this day in 1970; since then, Earth Day has come to be celebrated around the world. In the years following the celebration of the first Earth Day, the United States took an active role in the discussion on climate change. In 1970, Congress established the Clean Air Act to set national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards. In 1980, Congress established the Superfund, designated with the task of cleaning up hazardous waste sites. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Pollution Prevention Act which emphasized the importance of preventing, not just correcting, environmental damage.
President Bill Clinton led several significant environmental initiatives during his years in the White House. In 1993, he directed the federal government to use its $200 billion annual purchasing power to buy recycled and environmentally friendly products. Five years later, he announced the Clean Water Action Plan which focused on making America’s waterways safe for fishing and swimming. (The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 1972, only 36% of the nation’s assessed stream miles were safe for fishing and swimming. Today, still only 60% are believed to be safe for these activities.) In 1999, President Clinton implemented even more stringent emissions standards for vehicles, making them 77% to 95% cleaner than they were the previous year.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, however, America’s commitment to the challenge of climate change seems to have dwindled as the nation has turned its focus to national security concerns. The most recent Bush Administration did little to make significant progress in addressing climate change. In fact, the United States has come under intense fire from many in the international community for its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. As the Obama Administration settles into office, it will be interesting to see how the nation’s official stance and action on climate change evolves, if it does. During his election campaign, President Obama pledged to dust off the debate about Kyoto, indicating that he may consider ratifying it (the U.S. has already signed it), joining 183 other parties that have signed and ratified the convention.
In recent years, world leaders have put climate change higher on their agendas. In fact, climate change was one of the key topics at the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey held last month. In December, world leaders will convene in Copenhagen at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to discuss effective ways of mitigating the impact of climate change. A series of conferences are being held in the months leading up to December’s conference that will set the stage for discussions in Copenhagen.
Many have called on the U.S. to take the lead in addressing climate change. Last month, several world leaders convened in Washington, D.C. to call on the Obama Administration to make climate change a top priority for the U.S. in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, Danish Minister for Climate and Energy, Connie Hedegaard said during the visit, “’As soon as the U.S. administration and this House and Senate can…come up with the American position [on climate change], the more strong the pressure will be on all of us’ at the UN conference.’” In response, Todd Stern, Obama’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, urged Congress to pass climate legislation that would set a precedent for the rest of the world and prove that America is making progress in addressing the issue.
A recent Time magazine article explains that the United States has a unique opportunity, as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and most industrialized nation, to set a good example for the fastest industrializing nations of Brazil, India and China. According to the article, Brazil, India and China (all three are among the nations that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol) are on pace to quickly become the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases; interestingly, China and India have stated that they will not take any significant steps to effectively address climate change until the United States does. This clearly shows that the most significant actors in the debate are attempting to hold the United States accountable for its role in the climate crisis. The Obama Administration has stated its intention to address the issue of climate change and time will tell if those intentions materialize. If they do, there seems to be hope that other nations will follow America’s lead.
There is little doubt that the world must address the issue of climate change. As our world leaders negotiate at the highest levels to find ways of mitigating the damage caused by the phenomenon, businesses, cities and individuals are finding ways to address the problem on a smaller scale. Through activities associated with Earth Day, individuals can join together to make a difference and bring awareness to the growing devastation associated with climate change.