Environmentalists know it is tougher to get the public aroused about global warming than it is to get them riled up about polluted rivers unfit for swimming and fishing or air so toxic it burns the eyes.
That’s the dilemma environmental activists face as they plan for the 30th anniversary of Earth Day Saturday. It was not a problem they faced on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
“The major difference between this Earth Day and the first one was that the focus of the first Earth Day was on immediate threats to people, children and neighborhoods, such as the increasingly bad air and water pollution,” said Denis Hayes, national chairman of the Earth Day Network and an organizer of the first Earth Day.
“If you recall, back then, most rivers were unswimmable and unfishable, and one river, the Cuyahoga [in Ohio] was so polluted with industrial waste, it caught fire,” he said.
At the time of the original Earth Day, smokestack industries, as well as vehicles on the roads and planes in the air, discharged pollution unabated. A year before the first event, an oil rig rupture off the California coast near Santa Barbara poured 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean.
Then, the public demanded action. But now, it is not clear what it is demanding on global warming. According to a fact sheet released by the Earth Day Information Center, the “popularity of Earth Day has been declining” since 1970, when approximately 20 million Americans participated in the first event. The 1994 Earth Day celebrations drew fewer than 1 million people.
Glenn Kelly, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, the main voice of business and industry in the global warming debate, says it is obvious that “environmental activists are investing a massive amount of resources” to “try to get the public to focus” on the issue of global warming.
Mr. Kelly pointed out that some environmental groups have already spent $13 million for a television ad campaign warning that the world faces environmental catastrophe as a result of global warming.
And to help ensure a large turnout for Earth Day activities on the National Mall in Washington, Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio will be hosting the event.
Between noon and 1 p.m. Saturday the actor will introduce Vice President Al Gore, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and an array of entertainers from the movie, television and music industries. The list includes Bill Nye “the science guy”, country singer Clint Black, comedians Chevy Chase and Tom Arnold, and ‘60s pop artists James Taylor and David Crosby.
If the weather cooperates, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend. Beginning at 7:30 Friday night in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Crosby will perform live on line in an event sponsored by Microsoft and the group Earth Charter USA. The Web address for the event is www.windowsmedia.com/preview/EarthDay/earthday.asp.
Mr. Crosby will also be discussing his dedication to the Earth Charter, a document that sets forth principles for addressing problems such as poverty, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, injustice and social alienation.
Other Earth Day events, including eco-carnivals, tree plantings, city and beach cleanups, and recycling promotions with displays of communities fashioned from recycled materials are planned in every state.
Global warming is the term used to describe a process in which gases emitted by burning coal and other fossil fuels build up in the upper atmosphere and create a “greenhouse effect,” trapping heat and raising the Earth’s surface temperature.
Lester R. Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, which monitors global environmental trends, worries global warming could have devastating effects.
Even so, he agrees it may be hard to generate substantial public concern about global warming at this time. But if global warming, in combination with other problems such as falling water tables, “leads to severe food shortages and affects food prices, it would get people’s attention,” Mr. Brown said.
Not everyone foresees dire consequences from global warming.
“There are still many questions out there about what will happen with the climate” as a result of global temperature rise, said Global Climate Coalition spokesman Frank Maisano.
In his 1992 book, “Earth in the Balance,” which is being reintroduced in book stores Saturday to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, Mr. Gore warns that global warming could cause seas to rise and could force the dislocation of 10 million people from Bangladesh in the next few decades. He also does not rule out its causing the displacement of 60 percent of Florida’s population.
But a new book published by the Cato Institute, “The Satanic Gases,” rebuts Mr. Gore’s prediction of apocalypse from global warming. The authors of that book, climatologists Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr., contend that global warming has positive effects. They support their claims with nearly 1,000 articles from peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Unlike this year’s Earth Day, the original one focused on “visible problems” plaguing this country, said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
“In 1970, we didn’t understand some problems we couldn’t see that were capable of doing irreversible damage … and until we see a problem, it’s hard to get the government to act,” Mr. Pope said in a recent telephone interview.
Because global warming is a key issue to be addressed in Earth Day 2000, this year’s event will have an international focus. Events are scheduled to take place in 184 countries, and 500 million people worldwide are expected to take part.
The first Earth Day has been described as an “environmental awakening” that spawned the environmental movement. Earth Day 1970 was followed rapidly by the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the enactment of federal laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Three decades later, Mr. Pope says, “Most of the visible [environmental] problems in this country are getting better.”
The Earth Day Information Center says this explains why enthusiasm for Earth Day is declining. “The movement has achieved the goals it set for itself in 1970,” said the Information Center, a project of the National Center for Public Policy Research.
However, Mr. Pope says some “invisible problems are getting worse.”
Most serious of those, he says, is global climate change resulting from chemicals and the burning of fossil fuels.
“We’ve been putting our greenhouse [gas] pollutants into the atmosphere, so we’re destabilizing the global climate,” he said.
“Heat is a form of energy, and when you heat up the atmosphere, you get more energy and more storms,” said Mr. Pope. He contends that the incidence of extreme weather phenomena, such as hurricanes and floods, has been climbing steadily in recent years.
Environmental activists want the United States to set a firm deadline for ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 international agreement that calls for signers to reduce their fossil-fuel emissions by an average of 5.6 percent from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.
The Clinton administration signed the document, but Senate approval is required to make it legally binding. The president has refused to submit the treaty because he doesn’t have the votes in the Senate. Aside from other issues, some senators object that many countries, including India and China, are not convered under the treaty.
“There’s a lot of economic interests that benefit from not taking action on climate change,” said Mr. Pope. “Businesses that are getting a free ride on the environment” are rewarding laissez-faire politicians with campaign contributions, he says.
But Mr. Kelly, of the Global Climate Coalition, calls the changes sought by environmental activists “very dangerous” and unlikely to be approved by Congress.
He says GCC “supports common-sense legislation” to examine the climate change issue. The measure his group backs is sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators, including Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and Republicans Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Their bill “puts greater emphasis on technological development” and climate research “as opposed to arbitrary government regulations,” Mr. Kelly said.