Is the Environmental Movement Dead? Or a Victim of Its Own Success?

The first Earth Day happened 43 years ago. That day 20 million Americans turned out to speak up for the environment. Today … not so much — even as we face an environmental threat in climate change that could irreversibly change life on Earth as we know it.

Is the environmental movement dead? Hardly. It is a victim of its own success.

On April 22, 1970, Americans mobilized for Earth Day because the threat was right in their faces: Smokestacks poured out toxic gases, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, a massive oil spill fouled the beaches of Santa Barbara. And Congress responded with the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and more — strong legislation that was so effective, today we can hardly remember what the fuss was all about. Indeed, core environmental values are now so widely held by Americans that most cannot even conceive that their representatives might be “anti-environment.”

Yet, emboldened by an economic crisis that focused voters on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” the Republican-led House voted more than 300 times in 2011 and 2012 to undercut environmental law and regulations, according to one Democratic analysis. The 2012 election results, however, suggest that this Republican strategy failed for the same reasons it came up short on immigration reform and gay rights.

As on those issues, the winning Obama coalition went farther than popular support on the issue, favoring environmental protection more strongly than the public as a whole. The League of Conservation Voters “Flat Earth Five” campaign helped defeat four of its five targeted climate change deniers — all of them incumbents.

The public is way ahead of Washington on this one, as the pioneering work by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication demonstrates. A recent national survey shows that even Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agree by two-to-one that climate change is happening, and three out of four favor renewable energy as a solution.

Indeed, support for renewable energy is so strong and so broad across the American public that it is astonishing how few politicians have picked it up as a defining issue. Yet a rapid transition from coal, oil, and gas to wind, solar, and other renewables is the single most important step that the world could take to turn climate change from a nightmare
into something manageable.

And this is why hope remains strong on this Earth Day.

A revolutionary transformation of the global energy economy appears increasingly inevitable. The cost of renewable energy has fallen rapidly, and some of the brightest minds in science are focused on breakthroughs that will make renewables not only the cleanest form of energy, but also the cheapest.

Renewable energy could fully power a large electric grid 99.9 percent of the time by 2030 — at costs comparable to today’s — according to new research by the University of Delaware. 37 States have goals or requirements for the use of renewable energy. California will get a third of its electric power from renewables by 2020 — just seven years from now.

We are now in a race, quite literally, for our lives. The buildup of carbon dioxide and other long-lasting gases in the atmosphere means we will feel the effects of climate change for the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren as well.

The question is: How bad will it be?

The scariest answer is: We don’t know. If we take no action and continue with business as usual, burning all the fossil fuels we can dig out of the ground, the world’s climate may be disrupted in completely unpredictable ways, even challenging our access to food and water — the stuff of life we take for granted.

But if we stand up and speak out, as 20 million Americans did 43 years ago, we can have a future that is powered by the sun and the wind and water — clean energy technologies that will support the lives we want to live, without destroying the climate on which we depend. Once more, it is time to choose.

Reid Detchon is Vice President for Energy and Climate at the United Nations Foundation and the executive director of the Energy Future Coalition.

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