Simpler because our environmental problems are easily visible. The air above our cities was dirty, and the water in our lakes and streams was disgusting. There was nothing subtle about it. In New York, environmental attorney Albert Butzel described a permanent yellow horizon: “Not only did I see the pollution, I wiped it on my window sills. Or think of the testimony of a city medical examiner: “The person who spent his life in the Adirondacks has beautiful pink lungs. City dwellers are black like coal. You’ve probably heard of the Cleveland Cuyahoga River fire, but here’s how former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller described the Hudson south of Albany: “A large septic tank that was made almost useless for water supply, swimming or to support the rich fish life that once abounded there. Everything that people say about air and water in China and India right now has been said about American cities.
No wonder people mobilized: 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day in 1970 – 10% of the American population at the time, perhaps the largest day of political protest in the history of the country. And it worked. Worked politically because Congress quickly passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and scientifically because these laws had the desired effect. Essentially, they stuck enough filters on chimneys, car exhausts and factory effluent pipes which, before long, were definitely cleaner. The fledgling Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a series of photos that showed how dirty things were. Even for those of us who were alive at the time, it is hard to imagine that we tolerated this.
But we have to believe it, because now we face even greater challenges than we do almost nothing. And one of the reasons is that you can’t see them.
The carbon dioxide molecule is invisible; at today’s levels, you cannot see or feel it, and it does not matter to you. Carbon with an oxygen molecule? This is what kills you in a closed garage if you leave the car running. But two molecules of oxygen? It just traps the heat in the atmosphere. Melt the ice caps. Raise the seas. Change the weather conditions. But slowly enough that most of the time we didn’t see it completely.
And it’s a more complex moment for another reason. You can easily filter carbon monoxide. It is a trace gas, a very small percentage of what comes from a power plant. But carbon dioxide is exactly the opposite. This is the gist of what happens when you burn coal, gas or oil. There is no catalytic converter for CO2, which means you have to eliminate the fossil fuel industry.
This in turn means that you have to face not only the oil companies, but also the banks, asset managers and insurance companies that invest in them (and may even own them, as a result of the current economic crash). You must assume, that is to say, the heart of world capital.
And U.S. too. Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of environmental and climate justice groups ranging from small and specialized to Sierra Club and Greenpeace, formed last fall to try to tackle the biggest money on the planet. Banks like Chase – the largest in the world in terms of market capitalization – who have spent a quarter of a trillion dollars on the fossil fuel industry since the Paris agreement in 2015. Insurers like Liberty Mutual, still insuring oil sands projects, even though pipeline builders are putting Aboriginal communities at risk by trying to build the Keystone XL during a pandemic.
This campaign seems capricious, but it seemed to be gaining ground until the coronavirus pandemic struck. In January, BlackRock announced that it would put climate at the heart of its investment analysis. Liberty Mutual, under the same pressure from activists, began to move away from the coal. And Chase – well, Earth Day would have seen activists engaging in civil disobedience in several thousand banking lobbies across America, much like the January demonstration that helped launch the campaign (and m sent, among other things, handcuffed). But we canceled that; there’s no way we are going to risk transporting the germ to prison, where people already locked inside are unlikely to distance themselves socially.
Yet the pandemic could cause as much trouble for the fossil fuel industry as our campaign hoped. With the demand for petroleum craterisation, it is clear that these companies have no future. The divestment campaign which, in more than a decade, has mobilized $ 14 billion in endowments and portfolios in the fight against the climate has taken on a new lease of life.
Our task – more complex than that of our Earth Day predecessors 50 years ago – is to force spring. We need to accelerate the transition to solar panels and wind turbines that engineers have worked so hard to improve and are now the cheapest way to generate electricity. The only thing standing in the way is the political power of the fossil fuel companies, clearly displayed while Donald Trump is doing everything in his power to preserve their dominance. It’s difficult to overcome. Tough but simple. As in 1970, it demands incessant pressure from citizens. This pressure is coming. Indigenous nations, front-line communities, faith groups, climatologists and savvy investors are coming together and their voices are getting stronger. Seven million of us were on the streets last September. It’s not 20 million, but it’s on its way.
We can’t be on the street right now. So we will do what we can on the Internet boulevards. Join us for Earth Day Live, three days of digital activism starting April 22. We are in a race and we win quickly.
- Bill McKibben is an eminent Schumann author and researcher in environmental studies at Middlebury College, Vermont. His most recent book is Falter: Has Human Play Begun to Play?
This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration committed to strengthening the coverage of climate history