Happy Earth Day!

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Source: NASA ESA. 2006.

Today is Earth Day. But what is the significance of April 22, anyway?

There’s an odd rumor that the date was selected to coincide with Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. But according to Kathleen Rogers, President of the Earth Day Network, the date was chosen for more practical reasons. April 22, 1970, happened to fall on a Wednesday, helping to ensure superior turnout rates for Earth Day rallies across the United States. It worked. The first Earth Day event “brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform.”

However, the original global Earth Day, recognized by the United Nations, was actually conceived a month earlier to correspond with the solar equinox (which fell on March 21 of 1970). During the equinox, the sun is positioned perpendicular to the Earth’s equator, sharing its energy equally with the northern and southern hemispheres; the day is as long as the night (well, almost!). The solar equinox is perhaps a more poetic representation of our planet’s current environmental situation, which sits in limbo between dim circumstances and a brilliant future. There are good reasons for both pessimism and optimism.

The bad news was perhaps best represented in last week’s statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which “…found that decades of foot-dragging by political leaders had propelled humanity into a critical situation, with greenhouse emissions rising faster than ever,” according to the New York Times. Delayed and flippant action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and forestall climate change has been costly, and continued inaction presents an existential threat to future generations. We are also still confronted with the more immediate health risks associated with rampant air and water pollutants, particularly in rapidly industrializing regions of the world like China and India.

There are also good reasons for optimism. Sustainable energy technologies, particularly solar and wind, are now competitive against fossil fuels. In 2013, the world’s three largest economies and electricity consumers (the U.S. China, and Japan) were also the world’s three largest solar markets. Globally, solar technology accounts for nearly 1% of all electricity production, up from 0.1% less than a decade ago. As Tam Hunt recently noted on Greentech Media,

Only 1 percent, you say? That’s tiny. But that 1 percent is actually halfway to the goal of market dominance when we consider recent growth rates and the likely growth rate in the future. …1 percent is halfway between nothing and 100 percent. That is, there are seven doublings from 0.01 percent to more than 1 percent, as well as seven doublings from 1 percent to 100 percent.”

The price of solar electricity has plummeted faster than anyone could have predicted, showing how global free trade, hard work, innovation, as well as jump-start support from forward-thinking governments can have a major impact on the global energy and environmental landscape. Although we should continue to push for a global agreement among governments on climate change, we must act as though the responsibility to solve this challenge rests squarely on each of our own shoulders.

bernstein-solar

Not only is the future of our planet at stake, but so is the looming question about whether our species has the capability to unite to combat dangerous global externalities, for which no one individual, company, or country could be held solely responsible. Although there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism, today is as good a day as any to acknowledge the progress achieved and redouble our commitment to a cleaner and brighter future. We would do well to remember the Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

Happy Earth Day to all!

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