April 22, 1970 marks a fascinating moment in American environmental history. It was the first Earth Day. As the environment entered the public consciousness, the U.S. federal government passed an unprecedented slate of environmental protection laws.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) required Environmental Impact Statements and federal approval for construction permits and federal land management decisions.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 set limits for six toxic air pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and lead.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 set and enforced water quality standards for the nation’s lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands.
These three laws were accompanied by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), Toxic Substances Control Act (1976), and National Forest Management Act (1976), among others. The U.S. also established the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1970.
One-half century later, these laws are still the primary pieces of legislation protecting the environment. Within a divided government — a Democratic Congress and Republican Presidents (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford) — policymakers overcame disagreements to pass landmark environmental legislation over a six-year timespan.
The 1960’s were a tumultuous decade for the United States. Extreme social and cultural dynamics were in play, set in motion by the Vietnam War, the assassination of JFK, the Civil Rights Movement, an intensifying youth activism and counterculture movement, and the embryonic stirrings of the American Indian Movement and the women’s movement. At a time of social, civil, and racial strife, protecting the Earth emerged as a universally valued cause. Congress passed a historic run of environmental laws with massive bipartisan coalitions.
This chapter of American history prompts the question: Can protecting the environment transcend politics to become a rallying point for all Americans?
It would certainly be convenient if the answer is yes. According to Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans see very strong conflicts between the two political parties. And a survey done for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found that just over half of Biden voters and almost 6 in 10 Trump voters view the leaders of the opposing party as “presenting a clear and present danger to American democracy.” The American electorate ranks among the most contentious and combative in the world.
Meanwhile, the impact of climate change is getting progressively worse, with destructive weather extremes, sea level rise, food and water shortages, mass extinctions, destruction of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and more. A package of swift, bold climate legislation could potentially mitigate the damage, helping to ensure health, justice, national security, and stable economic development for all.
In theory, it makes sense that the environment should be a unifying cause. As University of Colorado, Boulder’s Dr. Ryan Vachon wittily put it, “The environment is important to me because I’m a part of it. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, is this hand important to me?’ Yeah, it’s mine!” Everything — food, water, air, energy, resources, health, security, etc. — requires some semblance of environmental stability. To devalue the environment is to devalue life.
In practice, it may not be that simple. Today, the stance of politicians on climate change generally is known to their constituents. While the number of people denying the reality of global warming has dwindled in recent years, the common misconceptions “Climate change won’t affect me” and “Climate action is in conflict with economic and human development” remain pervasive. More so than progress on air pollution, water pollution, and endangered species, climate action requires some understanding of science.
Maybe the first Earth Day can offer some insight. On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, in lunar orbit, took a color picture of the Earth. The impact of this image was profound. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating it. Joni Mitchell sang about it. Later, in 2003, it became the cover photo of the book 100 Photographs That Changed the World. Every person who saw the photo was reminded that it is up to us to preserve the tiny blue ball we call home. If we fail, no one is coming to save us. As Anders later said, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”
A profound moment of collective clarity like that one probably can’t be forced. But maybe that’s what it would take to unite a divided nation on climate change.