Earth Day badge in 1970

50 Years of Earth Day and Climate Action

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, marked by more than a billion people annually as a day of action to protect the planet. We catch up with the president of the network, Kathleen Rogers, on this year’s plans and how to take action in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans—10 percent of the total population of the United States, at the time—took to the streets to protest against the degradation of the environment. It was a watershed moment for environmentalism and remains one of the largest civic engagements in history. It became known as Earth Day. 

They marched against the pollution that was fogging their skies, the toxic chemicals that were being dumped in their communities and the loss of natural habitats in the name of industrial progress. For perhaps the first time, a mass of people realised that it not only hurt the environment, but human health too; the connection with toxic exposure, health conditions and birth defects could no longer go ignored. 

“Things changed dramatically when scientists got involved and said, ‘wait a second, look what we're facing as a result of our unfettered development,” says Rogers. It was a cause that united everyone: Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor, teachers and students, urban dwellers and farmers. 

Earth Day has always been about activism

“Earth Day has always been about activism and bringing people out in the street,” says Rogers, who joined as President in 2001 with a mission to diversify the network and activate the environmental movement worldwide. Now 50 years later, on Earth Day’s golden jubilee, looking after the planet has never been more urgent as we race towards an uncertain future of mass flooding, global warming and other drastic climate events. As awareness of climate change grows, the spirit of the original protesters back in the '70s is re-emerging, with the likes of Greta Thunberg leading the way for the youth of today who are tired of the lethargy of leaders when it comes to climate action—the theme for this year’s event.

Who started Earth Day?

Earth Day was the brainchild of a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, who first came up with the idea after witnessing the horrors of a massive oil spill in California in 1969. Inspired by the zeal of anti-war protesters, he decided to harness the power of people and announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment”, alongside a Harvard student and activist, Denis Hayes, who they recruited to drum up participation on campuses around the country. 

It worked. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which protects human and environmental health with research, monitoring and enforcement of standards. According to Rogers, this “bipartisan honeymoon continued for quite a while,” with more acts like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act passing, “until the ‘other side’ got smart. And by that I mean conservative members of Congress and business.” Essentially, corporate greed got in the way of enforcing environmental regulations. A familiar story to this day.

In 1990, Earth Day went global, mobilising 200 million people in 141 countries and putting environmental issues on the world stage with a major campaign for the planet. It paved the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and Senator Nelson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honour given to civilians in the United States—in the process. 

Earth Day 2020 goes digital 

This Earth Day there are two global crises: a climate emergency and the coronavirus pandemic. Both challenges need to be solved. “It is in a momentous opportunity to examine our individual and collective relationship with the natural world and how our activities impact the planet. The way forward is hopeful, and we have an opportunity to forever change how we interact with the environment in our own backyard and our community at large,” says Rogers. The pandemic may have scuppered their plans for mass on-the-ground activations, clean ups and protests, but with so much of their activity digital in nature, it was an easy decision to move it all online to create their first ever digital Earth Day. 

The coming event will see 24 hours of live teach-ins, performances and talks, held every hour, from the likes of climate change expert Christiana Figueres, former vice president and global environmental advocate Al Gore, National Geographic filmmaker and photographer Paul Nicklen, free climber Alex Honnold and actor and Global Advisory Committee member Zac Efron, among many others. All can be watched live (9am ET to 11pm ET) on EarthDay.org, you can add your voice with the hashtag #EarthDay2020 on social media.

The Earth Challenge 2020

We’ve all had that moment of frustration when we pass plastic pollution and don’t know what to do about it beyond picking it up. There’s now an app for that: The Earth Challenge 2020, a citizen science initiative. One of the major initiatives launching on Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, the idea is to bring scientific data and citizen science together to help advance environmental research and incite action to promote better environmental policies—the largest citizen science database in the world. The two initial focuses will be air quality and plastic pollution. “The underpinning of everything that we do is science,” says Rogers. “We developed this app to bring citizen scientists together.”

Plastic pollution on beach

The Earth Challenge 2020 app will allow citizens to record and fight plastic pollution

Using the app is simple: if a user sees some plastic pollution, for example, they can take a photo and upload it. This will contribute to existing global data about plastic pollution and the resulting database will be displayed on a public map and made available as open data for researchers to use. The app will also get a pop up of a civic engagement action. “Being able to take a photo and point to it on a map and then do something about it is incredibly useful,” Rogers tells me.

Vote Earth Campaign

One of the other major focuses of Earth Day is the importance of voting, with more than 65 countries hosting major elections in 2020, including the US Presidential election in November. Throughout April, Earth Day Network has ways to get involved in local, state and national politics via the Vote Earth campaign. “We have NGOs in our network, mayors and governors and faith groups. They're all really pushing to get people to focus on how important their vote is, regardless of where we are with pandemic,” Rogers tells me. “We’re really pushing: vote early and vote by mail (something that Trump is fighting tooth and nail) instead of going out on the street.”

“Earth Day is that inflection point where we're hoping people will vote and make the connection… and draw out more people who say, ‘Okay, it's time to really restart this thing and do it the right way,’” says Rogers, who adds that the coronavirus will have shifted many people’s priorities in the short term to whoever is able to “drag us out of this mess,” particularly when it comes to the economy and mass unemployment. 

Could it be a turning point? “I think preparedness and science are the first things out of the box we should be talking about, because that's digestible and understandable and crystal clear to every human being on the planet. We did not prepare. And we have the science. We didn't listen to the data. So will this be a turning point for anything? If you can convince people that long term planning and commitment around climate and other things are critically important, it may be.” A survey Change Incorporated carried out for Earth Day reinforces this idea; 71 percent of international participants* said Coronavirus has made them think more about climate change or realise they need to act proactively towards the global impacts of climate change.

For Rogers, her job is to continue to “build long-term inroads” globally and integrate every single person at every level of society, everywhere, in facing climate change. “No one wants to live in a neighbourhood with dirty water, dirty air or plastics all over the place. They just don't.”

*For Earth Day 2020, Change Incorporated commissioned new research on knowledge around climate issues among 9,000 adults in five countries - the USA, UK, Spain, India and Denmark - delving into understanding, attitudes and barriers to personal action. 

VICE is committed to ongoing coverage of the global climate crisis. Read all of our Earth Day 2020 coverage here, and more of our climate change coverage here.