Happy Earth Day, Macalester! Started in 1970, Earth Day is recognized annually on April 22. It is a day for communities to gather to celebrate the world we live in.
Earth Day is the brainchild of Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, who proposed the idea after witnessing the impacts of a major oil spill in California in 1969. He felt that the American people needed to be educated about environmental issues, and proposed organizing a national “teach-in” to discuss said problems.
Nelson recruited Denis Hayes, a participant in Vietnam war protests and a student enrolled in the Harvard School of Government, to organize the first Earth Day. Around 20 million people participated in rallies in 1970, and that tradition of grassroots organizing has persisted across the decades. Hayes has since founded the Earth Day Network and spread the event to 180 countries around the world. Thanks to Hayes and countless other environmentalists, Earth Day is now the world’s most widely-observed secular holiday.
Historically, Earth Day is famous for incentivizing international rallies and facilitating bottom-up democracy. However, this year, Earth Day will become historic for a new reason: the signing of a landmark international greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledge. Last November, France hosted the 21st Convention of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The 196 countries who attended drafted the Paris Agreement, committing to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. However, the agreement was not formally signed in November. In order to enter into force, the Paris Agreement must be signed by countries accounting for at least 55 percent of the global population and 55 percent of current global emissions.
At first, countries were considering implementing the agreement in 2020. However, the US and China have agreed to meet at the UN in New York this Earth Day to become early signers of the agreement. Together, the US and China represent 40 percent of global emissions, so their enthusiasm speaks well to future successes in emissions reduction. However, in order to bring the agreement into force as soon as possible, the governments seek to recruit other countries to sign as well, to make the 55 percent of global emissions commitment needed. Though the EU would typically be a good choice to be an early signer given its historical support of climate agreements, because the EU is comprised of 28 countries, it is unlikely to be able to make an internal agreement to sign by the end of the year. Therefore, the US and China will have to seek to build a coalition of smaller countries.
The rush to sign the agreement and implement it is partially because climate change is an urgent issue, and partially due to the uncertainty of whether or not the next US president will support the Paris Agreement. Regardless of whether or not the necessary number of countries sign on this year, the fact that the US and China are signing it this Earth Day suggests a bright future for the agreement.
International agreements matter, but they rely upon actions at the country, state and city levels. This Earth Day, Macalester is doing its part to raise awareness about environmental issues. From the “trashion” trash fashion show, where students designed and modeled garments made from 90 percent discarded materials, to the declaration of a campus-wide biking day, our community is rallying in support of the planet and each other. Let’s try to keep that environmentally-minded momentum moving forward, even after Earth Day ends.