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Our extraordinary 50th Earth Day

Posted on 23 April 2020 by Bud Ward

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections.

Happy 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Well, sort of anyway, “happy” being a relative term in these extraordinarily turbulent times.

This no doubt will be the strangest Earth Day: Each day since the start of the global coronavirus pandemic took hold may qualify as the strangest … until tomorrow comes.

That said, past Earth Days have brought together large assemblies of persons across the globe to celebrate our planet and fight for its continued wellbeing. None of that this year, please, other than digitally and with all due respect for the critical need for physical and social distancing. (Think Andrea Bocelli singing “Amazing Grace” in an empty courtyard in front of Milan’s Duomo Cathedral this past Easter Day.)

In the personal confines sequestering many of us this April 22, it will be important to acknowledge some inarguable conclusions:

  • We wouldn’t want to be living today in the environment of a United States that has not benefited from the environmental, conservation, and pollution control efforts triggered at the start of the ’70s by then-President Richard M. Nixon and his January 1 declaration of “the environmental decade.”
  • Picture our current 328+ million people and the air we would be breathing today were it not for the extraordinary progress made under the 1970 Clean Air Act. Remember days of “headlights at noon” ranging from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles? No thank you.
  • Or picture the water quality of our endless rivers, lakes, and streams were it not for the gains made under the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act (AKA Clean Water Act). “Don’t come in, the water’s foul!” we’d be urging.
  • Or recall the so-called potable water that was being swept down the Mississippi River to folks in New Orleans. Kentucky’s best bourbons couldn’t have sufficed to make it worth tasting.
  • Endangered species? Wild and scenic rivers? Endless strip mining and “mountain top removal” (a euphemism for sure), “Right to know,” pervasive and random application of all sorts of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and more? Major federal laws on each were enacted in that first decade of Earth Days.

And that short listing doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the victories gained – the pollution and environmental degradation avoided – as a result of the January 1970 enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, with its provisions for environmental impact statements. A modern world without NEPA? I’d rather not, thanks.

None of which, by the way, is intended to suggest that any of those statutes, nor the vast and complex implementing regulations under them, are “perfect.” Far from it. Nor does it suggest that the battles are won, the gains so far achieved irreversible. Farther still. Created as they were by fallible beings, working always in a political and imperfect system, valid criticisms apply across the board. Overly litigious? Check. In some cases convoluted and imprecise? Got it. Idealistically ambitious in some cases (think “zero discharge” by 1977 under the Water Act)? True. Shortcomings abound.

But that’s OK, and in the end a tribute to and not a criticism of these five decades of accomplishment and aspiration since Earth Day One.

Toro cartoon

And oh, the ironies. This year’s Earth Day will be observed throughout much of the U.S. and the world in a period of unusually clean air and clear skies, distant horizons now visible in the absence of the smog and air pollution long endured in many places as being normal. Think here of a New Delhi resident’s for the first time seeing the majesty of the Himalayas, the smog temporarily abated. Those air pollutants, as with those responsible for global warming, are diminished substantially, but certainly only temporarily: They’re gone as a result of the dearth now of what many have now come to abide, however reluctantly, as “normal,” the detritus from routine air and highway miles traveled daily by millions domestically and billions worldwide.

The cleaner air bonanza afforded us by the constraints imposed by the coronavirus realities – SPOILER ALERT: another irony here – comes during the tenure of what must clearly be regarded as the single most anti-environmental presidential administration of any in U.S. history. That characterization applies to, and beyond, the highly controversial targeted evisceration of regulations and policies aimed over the past three-plus years specifically at the preceding administration’s climate change efforts. But it applies nowhere more than in the climate change context. And that’s notwithstanding this President’s protestations to the contrary, including his saying he is “an environmentalist.” That clearly is – what does one call it? – “fake news.”

It will be ironic too, won’t it, if year-end official atmospheric data show calendar year 2020 to have measured the most progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Or perhaps even if data at the end of this administration’s tenure show major declines in greenhouse gas emissions? The irony is gobsmacking but the likelihood highly possible. Prepare for it.

In the end, this 50th Earth Day will come. And go. That much is clear. What is far less clear at this point is the potential impact, physically and psychologically, that the eventual post-coronavirus era will have on public and political attitudes toward addressing the climate challenges still confronting the planet. Will the 60th, or 70th, or even centennial celebration of Earth Day find the coronavirus lessons fully learned and applied to climate change? Will the global climate by then have been healed, or still ailing and even far more so?

Perhaps, just perhaps, the world’s people and their leaders at all levels will have come together well before then to confront and overcome the perils of global warming, just as they certainly must come together soon to defeat coronavirus.

If only doing so were as simple and as straightforward as developing and providing a vaccine.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. "We wouldn’t want to be living today in the environment of a United States that has not benefited from the environmental, conservation, and pollution control efforts triggered at the start of the ’70s by then-President Richard M. Nixon and his January 1 declaration of “the environmental decade.”

    You and I wouldnt, but a sizeable proportions of Americans wouldn't mind living with pollution. Trump couldn't care less about the environment, but he has his supporters so theres your proof. They are worried about their freedoms being taken away. As long as they have their semi automatics and can dump waste anywhere they are happy, even if they are choking on bad air. This idiocy is very entrenched.

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  2. nigelj,

    Tragically, the problem in America today is the same as many of the problems created by the wealthier portion of the population around the world throughout history ... the benefits of being the winners of the "impression of wealth competitions" is that most of the negative consequences are suffered by Others.

    In California the air pollution got bad because the regional air mass would be stuck against the mountains for many days. But the worst air quality was in the lower areas, not up in the hills where the rich competed to live the highest. The measures to clean the air in California did not become laws until the bad smog reached up into the hills of the rich.

    I still remember smelling the smog as the plane I was travellin in dropped down into the brown air mass that covered the LA area all those years ago.

    And the tragedy of climate change is the combination of:

    • poorer people in more developed nations suffering the pollution of fossil fuel operations and bad air quality in heavy traffic areas.
    • More horrible harms done in less developed nations.
    • And, worst of all, it creates negative affects for future generations.

    The common denominator of all that harm is that it is not likely to be experienced by the people benefiting most from the use of fossil fuels.

    The real tragedy in America is how easily people who are likely to be harmed by a certain type of leadership are easily impressed to believe that leadership is Their Saviour, and "Freedom to believe whatever they want and do as they please" is their Valhalla, Nirvana, Shangri-la, free from the bother of expanded awareness and improved understanding that many things they might like to benefit from are harmful and unacceptable, free from the imposition of that undesired learning that could be delivered through bothersome presentations of better understanding by more knowledgeable helpful people.

    Those type of people certainly do not want Their Tribe's Leaders expanding awareness and improving understanding to get people to be less harmful, getting more people to understand that they need to want to help achieve and improve on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the climate change impact problem.

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  3. Dear SkS Moderators, Completely off topic (sorry!): I just noticed that the x-axis of the atom bomb clock is stuck on 2013. The # of AB's is correct for 2020, but the date isn't. Any chance this could be fixed and also automatically move with the actual date? ... Thanks!

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  4. I wonder if the lesson will be absorbed by many of us.  This C19 crisis is just a little tiddler compared to what we could experience from other more devestating diseases or from a whole lot of other things totally unrelated to disease that Giya could throw at us. Just imagine the failure of the world's grain harvest following just one year of really strange weather caused by a climate tipping point being reached.

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  5. How do we get electricity from renewable sources without using fossil fuels in the building of the infrastructure?

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  6. @5 Bob,

    Why do we need to?

    One of the biggest myths surounding AGW mitigation is that we must eliminate all fossil fuel use 100%. This simply isn't true. There are for example certain lubricants we get from petroleum that without it the only substiture is certain whale oils. That would be extraorinarily foolish to end oil pumping, yet start whaling again, wouldn't it? 

    Go back to the IPCC scenarios. You'll find RCP 2.6 completely reverses AGW without completely ending all fossil fuel use. 

    Climate Model: Temperature Change (RCP 2.6)

    The RCP 2.6 scenario peaks mid-century, which means the radiative forcing level reaches 3.1 W/m2 but returns to 2.6 W/m2 by 2100. So somewhere around 2050 +/- we need to reach net zero emissions. That's 30 years from now. The only way to build the needed infrastructure by then is with fossil fuels actually. And RCP 2.6 is the only IPCC published scenario that actually reverses AGW before incredible harm from global warming happens.

    The only known way to reach this is to reduce fossil fuel use and increase carbon sequestration such that the net result is a draw down of atmospheric CO2 levels. Thus it is the net that matters, not gross emissions.

    Currently the only technology capable of sequestering large enough amounts of CO2 to reach the net negative draw down state found in RCP 2.6 is agriculture. And luckily for us, this technology is relatively cheap, relatively effective, minimal unexpected side effect risks, and universally beneficial to both human society and natural ecosystems even if AGW wasn't a thing at all. It would still be something that must be done on it's on merits!

    So there is absolutely no reason to delay building renewable energy infrastructure, even using fossil fuels to build those renewables. We need to accomplish the building of them by 2050 and start draw down from then on in order to reach RCP 2.6 scenario goals. 

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  7. Bob,

    Your question is incorrect.  We need to end fossil fuel use.  If we build out a completely renewable energy system fossil energy use will be ended.  

    Already for many years, more energy is generated by existing renewable energy systems than is used to build out new renewable energy systems.  With every solar or wind farm completed, less fossil fuels are used worldwide and less carbon dioxide is released.  You are counting fossil energy used in the rest of the economy against building renewable energy systems.

    The savings in less carbon dioxide emissions in the electrical sector of the economy greatly exceeds the emission of carbon dioxide in the manufacture of the steel and other components in the renewble system.  It lowers carbon dioxide emissions fastest to lower electrical system emissions first.  Obviously we want to remove carbon dioxide as fast as possible.  Once most electricity is generated by renewable sources industrial emissions of carbon dioxide will be converted to renewable energy.  

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  8. Bob @5 , the other side of the coin for your question is :- What is the repayment time for renewable energy sources.

    [German figures] show that windturbines repay themselves in about 6 months ~ a bit more for small turbines, but less time for the largest turbines.   And PhotoVoltaic panels (commercial solar farm) repay themselves in around 1.5 to 3 years . . . in Germany's scanty sunlight !

    Much of the upfront "CO2 cost" of turbines is the large amount of concrete of the tower base.  But that is a one-off cost, and is not repeated as the turbine blades & shaft assembly get replaced in 15 years or so.

    All this is way ahead of long-term coal or gas type power plants.  So there is no present need to delay installation of these renewables.  We should also add in the costings of high-voltage grid connection to solar & wind farms ~ but again, that's largely a one-off cost.  Storage & batteries will need to benefit from more R&D over 30 years, too.

    As RedBaron indicates, the realistic aim is not to replace all fossil fuel industrial input by the next year or two, but to transition the energy economy over the 30 years until 2050.   Technically that seems possible over 30 years at moderate cost (once you deduct the dollar cost of maintaining or increasing the fossil fuel technology systems of today).

    My one reservation is that the supply of jetfuel & diesel from organic-based manufacture ( e.g. vat-fermentation / algal-culture ) is around $200 per barrel, last I heard.   Presumably the biochemists can improve on that, given some decades for R&D.

    But on a slightly humorous note . . . the biochemists will have their work cut out for them, to match the negative  cost today of a barrel of oil on the Oil Futures market [April 2020] .

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  9. In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day, the NYT "Climate" desk has presented a series of articles on Climate Change matters. It is a good comprehensive presentation of the history and state of the matter today. The link below goes to the 7th and final segment. Just scroll up to see the previous items.

    A crash course on climate change, 50 years after the first Earth Day

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