As we gear up for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, young people must lead from the front to take on climate change challenges
Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 each year. But few people understand the conditions under which this major initiative was introduced in 1970 by a visionary leader, US Senator Gaylord Nelson. The Earth Day Network’s (EDN) website explains the conditions under which the first Earth Day was organised in 1970. It mentions the height of counter-culture in the United States (US), the resistance to the war in Vietnam, the very basic morality of that war and the role of the US in waging violent aggression on one of the poorest countries in the world, so remote from the aggressor nation. Concurrently, the state of the environment in the US was badly degraded with powerful automobiles using large quantities of leaded gas, several industries emitting large quantities of smoke and sludge and no legal remedies as a recourse or reporting by the media on these terrible and negative impacts. Air pollution was generally accepted as the other side of prosperity.
Yet, it was in 1962 that Rachel Carson published a powerful account of the state of the environment in that nation, the widespread use of pesticides and chemicals, which were harming not only the human society but all living species and in general, exposing the link between pollution and public health. On the very first Earth Day, 20 million Americans took to the streets and gathered in parks and auditoria to demonstrate against the shocking conditions under which the so-called progress was being achieved with massive damage and degradation to the environment and its effects on human life.
Significantly, there was bipartisan support for this massive show of concern and determination for action by the people of the US. According to EDN, people — both rich and poor — urban dwellers and farmers, industrial tycoons and labour leaders joined hands to express their concerns. What was particularly important is that Senator Nelson asked a young person called Denis Hayes to organise this nationwide effort involving 20 million people taking part in a set of events, with which all Americans made common cause.
Today, the state of our planet and its fragile ecosystems are under progressive assault and since 1970, the ecological footprint of human activities has grown in gigantic proportions. One reason for this is the universal desire of people across the world to own, produce and consume goods and services, for which a benchmark and style has been set by the countries of North America. The unsustainability of this escalating uniformity of desires and aspirations hardly needs any explanation because the earth’s population today is moving towards eight billion people. The population in 1970 was around 3.7 billion and, therefore, demands on ecosystem services and the value that nature provides to life across all species has not only increased on account of this substantial increase in population but also led to a boost in income and wealth. The GDP of the world is at an unprecedented level of 87.37 trillion dollars. Despite this exponential increase, disparities in income and wealth have grown to an unhealthy degree. As per the Oxfam International report published in January 2019, the combined fortunes of the world’s 26 richest individuals reached $1.4 trillion last year, which represents the same amount as the total wealth of 3.8 billion poorest people.
Even more serious is the growing problem of climate change, which, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown, is the result of the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen stated, this combination of effects on planet earth represents a period of the anthropocene; we are clearly within an era when human beings have become responsible for geological changes defined by earlier epochs. Today, thoughtful voices of despair and determination are being heard all around by which human society will hopefully move us forward in limiting the risks from the impacts of climate change. This, therefore, becomes a relevant mission for celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020.
The current challenge facing human society is to bring about a disruptive shift in paradigm from the totally unsustainable path, which we have embarked on since industrialisation. A massive change with a sense of urgency is what would be required to reduce the risks of climate change, for which the youth of the world must take the lead.
On Earth Day 2016 in Mexico City, the POP (Protect Our Planet) Movement, a major programme of action focussing on the youth of the world, was launched. Essentially, every young person has to work towards minimising his/her carbon footprint. This would involve the development of educational institutions, which meet the goals of sustainable development, mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Just imagine, if every educational institution across the globe becomes a centre for action to deal with climate change, this would not only transform the lives of those who pass through the portals of such institutions, but also influence the communities around them, including adults who come directly in contact with the students. In reality, the youth of the world have to make major shifts in their lifestyles and behaviour so that they are at the vanguard of change.
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 needs a massive effort on the part of young people and others to celebrate Youth CAN (Youth for Climate Action Now). While we have less than a year left for this major set of activities, young people need to make plans, form partnerships and build up their efforts towards a global movement that would truly bring about a paradigm shift in the very concept of growth and development pursued by human society since the beginning of industrialisation. This would hopefully embarrass adults as well in changing their own lifestyles.
(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)
Writer: RK Pachauri
Courtesy: The Pioneer