12 Apr 2010: Opinion

Beyond the Limits of Earth Day:
Turning Up the Heat on Climate

This April marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, an event that has attracted millions to environmental causes. But winning passage of meaningful legislation on climate change requires more than slogans and green talk — it demands intense, determined political action. 

by denis hayes

Size doesn’t matter.

Or at least, size is not the only thing that matters. In 21st century American democracy, massive public support is certainly desirable, especially over the long run. But what really counts with Congress is intensity.

A huge majority of Americans favor gun control, for example. According to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, four out of five believe a police permit should be required for the purchase of a firearm.

But a small, intense set of Second Amendment absolutists will vote against any politician who favors such an approach. In most elections, a dedicated group of 10 percent, or even 5 percent, of voters can tilt the outcome. So politicians cater to the position whose supporters are most intense — who make sure a politician aligns with them on a single issue before they even examine the rest of his record.

What does this have to do with Earth Day?

Earth Day 1970, for which I served as national coordinator, was huge. Twenty million Americans took part. Millions of Americans who didn’t know what “the environment” was in 1969 discovered in 1970 that they were environmentalists.

Earth Day
Denis Hayes was a student at Harvard Law School in 1970 when Sen. Gaylord Nelson tapped him to serve as national coordinator of the first Earth Day.
Moreover, Earth Day was bipartisan. Although there was some antagonism toward President Nixon among the organizers, the campaign was co-chaired by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey. The 1 million-person event in New York City was chaired by the progressive Republican mayor, John Lindsay.

Over the next three years, Congress passed the most far-reaching cluster of legislation since the New Deal — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and myriad other laws that have fundamentally changed the nation. Trillions of dollars have been spent differently than they would have but for this new regulatory framework.

The conclusion the environmental movement drew from this was that it should try to grow as large as possible and to be bipartisan.

In recent decades, this hasn’t been turning out too well.

What everyone has forgotten is what happened after the first Earth Day. Just one week later, President Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia. The Kent State shootings followed a few days later. The spotlight shifted abruptly away from the environment.

But the environment returned to national prominence in the fall of 1970. The Earth Day organizers jumped into the Congressional elections, seeking to defeat a “Dirty Dozen” of incumbent Congressmen. The targets were selected because they had abysmal environmental records, but also because they were in tight races and were from districts with a major environmental issue that voters cared about.

The first of the seven Congressmen we took out that fall was George Fallon from Baltimore. Representative Fallon was chairman of the House Public Works Committee, the “pork” committee, and a powerful opponent of mass transit. Politicians of all stripes took notice: If Fallon was vulnerable, everyone in politics was vulnerable.

In that single primary election (won by a young upstart named Paul Sarbanes), Earth Day’s organizers had made “the environment” a voting issue.
Earth Day is a Mississippi River phenomenon – a mile wide but only a few inches deep.
A few weeks after the election — despite the furious opposition of the coal, oil, electric utility, automobile, and steel industries — the Senate version of the 1970 Clean Air Act, authored by U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, passed the Senate unanimously. It was later adopted by the House on a voice vote.

Air pollution control enjoyed widespread support (much of which had been generated on Earth Day by participants in gas masks and college students burying internal combustion engines — leading to press coverage of depressing facts about air pollution on children). But what fundamentally changed the political dynamics was the intense engagement of a much smaller group of voters in the Congressional elections.

The political landscape has changed dramatically over the last 40 years, and today’s focus on bipartisanship is arguably misplaced. Republicans once counted among their leaders such thoughtful, progressive, green politicians as Nelson Rockefeller, Chuck Percy, Elliott Richardson, Ed Brooke, Bill Scranton, Jacob Javitz, John Chafee, and Mark Hatfield. Indeed, it was a Republican — Howard Baker — who drafted the most radical provision in the Clean Air Act, the “technology forcing” section that required all new cars to have catalytic converters, even though no such device was yet commercially available.

But by 1980, when Ronald Reagan carried every southern state except Georgia (Jimmy Carter’s home state), the Republican party had been transformed. President Reagan assembled the most anti-environmental cabinet in history.

Although both parties once included important mixtures of left and right, they have become increasingly polarized. In fact, the Republican leadership is now so robustly anti-environmental that the League of Conservation Voters uses affirmative action in evaluating its scorecards. A Democrat with a 60 percent voting record is seen as awful, while a Republican with 60 percent is seen as exceptional.

In this context, striving for bipartisan support produces legislation that is at best inadequate and at worst designed to fail to achieve its purpose.

I have been closely identified with Earth Day for the last 40 years, and I’m proud of helping not only to keep the event alive but of turning it into the
The environmental movement sometimes projects a vague image about what it stands for.
most-widely-observed secular international holiday. Every year, Earth Day is observed in the United States in a couple of thousand cities, at least a thousand colleges, and 60,000 to 80,000 K-12 schools. It has helped to pass on environmental values to future generations, and it has consciously sought to broaden and diversify the environmental movement.

Earth Day is mostly a mainstream phenomenon, and it has played a role in focusing students on careers in environmental law, environmental health, green architecture, conservation biology, and other fields. Millions of people make choices about lifestyles, diet, housing, automobiles, and even the number of children they have because of thinking that began at an Earth Day program.

But Earth Day is, by its very nature, a Mississippi River phenomenon. It generates support that is a mile wide but only a few inches deep. There is room for environmental zealots in Earth Day — heck, most people consider me an environmental zealot. But an event seeking to enlist tens of millions of people must accept a broad common denominator. It must welcome those who are just beginning to recycle as well as those who are devoting their entire lives to the pursuit of ambitious environmental goals.

However, to succeed against the wealthy, powerful forces arrayed against it on issues like climate disruption, ocean acidification, and a global epidemic of extinction, the environmental movement also needs a large block of people who will fight for a sustainable future valiantly and without compromise. Those of us in that block may be soundly defeated — creating a context in which others may be able to negotiate acceptable compromises. But the ultimate resolution will be far better because we made our case with honesty, clarity and strength.

In recent years, the movement has sought to find soft language, novel arguments, and compromised positions that will help it raise support in new communities, including those with little or no interest in environmental values. It is on a constant lookout for spokespeople who are explicitly not environmentalists. In the process, it sometimes projects an incredibly vague image about what it stands for.

Today, the world faces a crisis that only a handful of experts were even vaguely aware of in 1970: climate disruption. Now, after subsequent decades of careful, worldwide, scientific study, the results are clear: We are
The only way Congress will act intelligently and boldly on climate change is if we give it no choice.
cooking the planet.

Humanity must swiftly abandon dirty power and switch to safe, clean, decentralized, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. America has been trailing in these fields for the last 30 years. But America, with its superb universities, entrepreneurial culture, and venturesome capital, should lead the way.

Leading the way requires a long-term vision, programs with explicit goals and targets, and consistency of purpose. Making this transition will not be cheap, and it may involve some painful dislocations.

This won’t happen as a result of Congressional brilliance and courage. Although Congress has some brilliant, courageous individual members, as an institution it is dumb and cowardly. The only way that Congress will act intelligently and boldly on this issue is if we give it no choice.

A large block of Americans must make the climate disruption issue an initial voting screen. If a candidate is ok on climate, then we will look at the rest of her record. To move this issue forward, our voices must be as loud as those hollering for the right to carry a Colt into Starbucks or for saving Granny from death panels.

This year, Earth Day organizers are demanding a fair, comprehensive, and effective climate solution. Regional, state, local, and individual policies and actions are already underway. But a sweeping federal law is needed to show the world that America is serious. Such a law is needed to show the coal and oil and electric-utility industries that America is serious.

Most experts I know agree, in private, that the Cantwell-Collins bill in the Senate is the best climate legislation that has yet been proposed. In fact, it
Politicians who try to ignore climate disruption need to start losing their jobs next November.
is the only option under consideration that would make a meaningful dent in greenhouse gas emissions in the near term. It places an absolute cap on carbon where it enters the economy; auctions 100 percent of carbon permits; and returns the revenues to the public on a pro rata basis. Moreover, it’s just 40 pages long, while the competing bills contain another thousand pages of loopholes, special interest exceptions, and bad baggage.

But the so-called eco-pragmatists have one powerful argument against it. They say it can’t be passed. A prominent green leader told me, “To pass any climate bill at all, we have to appease coal-state Democrats, shovel as much money as necessary to pro-nuclear Republicans, and buy off the electric utilities.” That is an apt description of the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill now making the rounds in the Senate.

This sentiment has been broadly, if reluctantly, embraced by most of the large, mainstream national environmental groups working on climate as well as by the Obama Administration.

But it appalls virtually every environmentalist who lives outside the beltway.

The environmental movement has spent more than a billion dollars trying to pass a cap-and-trade bill, and it is feeling some desperation. The people who contributed all that money expect some results. The pressure to pass something — almost anything — that arguably puts some sort of cap on carbon is intense.

Yet every draft of the climate bill is weaker than its predecessor. Every draft does a poorer job of putting a reasonable price on carbon. Every draft is larded with more taxpayers dollars for socialized, centralized nuclear power and for “clean coal.” Every draft carries more sweeteners for the utility industry, the automobile industry, the coal and oil industries, and the industrial farmers and foresters.

Instead of weakening the bill, we need to change the politics.

Politicians who try to ignore climate disruption — and that’s a whole lot of them — need to start losing their jobs next November.

The junk-science, climate-denying interest groups are rich, powerful, and ruthless. But they are mostly the same bunch that fought tooth-and-nail against the Clean Air Act four decades ago. They will lose now for the same reason they lost back then: They favor 19th century answers to 21st century problems.


Environmental Failure:
Case for a New Green Politics

The U.S. environmental movement is failing. What’s needed, writes James Gustave Speth, is a new, inclusive green politics that challenges basic assumptions about consumerism and unlimited growth.
Earth Day will continue its “big tent” approach to environmentalism, providing a welcome to everyone who authentically cares about environmental values. But while that is an appropriate outreach strategy for an event designed to broaden and educate the movement, it is not a strategy that will prevail politically over fierce opponents, egged on by bloviating talk radio hosts and fact-free blogs.

We will not win a climate bill that is worthy of the name, a bill that will deal honestly with the full enormity of the threat we are facing, until there exists an intense environmental voting bloc that will subordinate all other issues to climate. That block needs to construct a successful campaign to return some Congressional villains to private life—perhaps even a couple of dozen.

We must make it crystal clear to politicians everywhere that we are serious. This issue to too vital and too urgent to do any less.

POSTED ON 12 Apr 2010 IN Biodiversity Policy & Politics Science & Technology Asia North America North America 


If you consider 32 percent a huge majority of the American people, then yeah, a huge majority of Americans favor gun control, as opposed to that small, intense 78 percent minority of Second Amendment absolutists.

Get real, man. Use FACTS, not hyperbole.

Posted by Ed on 12 Apr 2010

I like what you are saying, but I'm not sure it can happen that way. I agree that we have been soft and we need to be much more bold on the legislative front. But the problem is that legislation is outdated when it comes to climate change solutions.

There isn't a legislative solution to climate change, because there isn't any soltutin to climate change. It's gone too far. We need to concentrate on adaptation. It's gonna happen, climate change that is, in fact, it's happening now as I type. We've reached too many tipping points. The only reason I say this without any evidince is that the evidnce is in the fact that every study that comes out on global warming says, "Much worst than previously thought". That trend has been happening for at leat 15 years now.

And finally there are some scientists who have the guts to say that we've gone too far. Sure, let's legislate AGW, but that should be a side issue to adaptation. The trillions getting ready to be spent on a green economy is very tempting to support, but I'd rather see that money spent on sand bags.

Posted by Danny Heim on 13 Apr 2010


I disagree that there can't be any legislative solution to climate change, or that there isn't any solution. The solution is easy: decrease emissions. Doing that is the hard part. We can all change light bulbs etc, but we badly need a strong federal approach to reducing overall emissions to have a meaningful impact.

Of course, even if we reduce emissions to zero today there will still be climate change impacts due to the inertia of the climate system and the emissions of the past 30 years. This makes adaptation measures important, but an adaptation strategy without any mitigation strategy is just foolish.

Posted by Scott on 13 Apr 2010


Thank you for this fine piece of political advice, and for your lifetime of work for a sustainable world. I teach field courses on climate and energy issues, and will have students read this piece for its historical context and clear statement of our current environmental situation.

Too often advocates for sustainability think it is sufficient to "be the change they want to see" and leave it at that. Supporting farmers markets, riding bikes instead of SUVs, and buying new lightbulbs are good actions, but meaningless unless there is a strong political dimension to the advocacy.

I agree that the environmental movement has become too soft and compromising in its approach. Climate stability (what we are really for) requires focused political action that does not apologize for or disguise its aims. We face an existential threat from climate change, and there is no reason to hold back on our demands for a livable future for the Earth.

Thanks again!

Posted by Dave on 15 Apr 2010

Ed -- As you know, one can find any poll result one wants on gun control. Internet polls are particularly crazy because gun groups have the intensity I was writing about and really mobilized their members. I cited a respected, objective source for my numbers — which includes acceptance of common existing laws regulating the sale of handguns — and I think 80 percent is a decent majority.

A poll conducted last year for the NYT and CBS asked: "In general, do you feel the laws covering the sale of handguns should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?" 60 percent said more strict; 7 percent said less strict; 32 percent said keep as they are.

Again, 32 percent said existing regulations are about right, and 60 percent want stricter regulation. Only 7 percent want less strict regulation. I certainly was not attempting to be hyperbolic.

The NRA and its fellow Second Amendment absolutists have done a truly amazing job of mobilizing their troops and scaring the hell out of most politicians. As long as we have this new winner-takes-all politics, other groups need to learn from them.

Danny — the smartest climate guys I know agree with you that it is too late to avoid AGW. But the difference to the planet between pouring 40 more years of more and more warming gases into the atmosphere versus phasing them out is enormous. I, and the philanthropy I head, have spent a great deal of time and money working on adaptation. But it cannot be one or the other — and achieving a swift energy transition gets more costly and more painful the longer we put it off.

Scott — I find that I just paraphrased you. Thanks.

Dave — Thanks for your personal comments and for your intelligent general remarks.

CORRECTION: This is embarrassing. A couple words in my little offhand tribute to Cantwell-Collins in this piece on political intensity is causing some legitimate consternation among climate wonks. And, in fact, it could cited in ways I would find appalling.

While the Cantwell bill is my choice, it is not unflawed. In particular, unless its near-term caps are significantly reduced, their impact for the next several years will be extremely small — perhaps lower than business-as-usual in lieu of legislation. And of course, because greenhouse forcing is cumulative, near term reductions are particularly crucial. By 2050, CO2 molecule emitted to the atmosphere today will be warming the planet for 40 years; one emitted in 2030 will only have been warming it for 20 years. Deep early reductions will be more difficult to get through Congress, but they are absolutely essential.

Posted by Denis Hayes on 15 Apr 2010

You are certainly right about the urgency of the issue. It seems to me the task at hand is to get the best bill possible through the Senate. With the President and Congressional majorities we have now, there is a closing window of political opportunity.

I question your specific assertion that Cantwell-Collins is the best climate legislation yet proposed. Analysis by the World Resources Institute indicates that Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer would reduce emissions more.


Posted by Daniel on 15 Apr 2010

An additional thought:

Not to be glib but it really does seem to me that development has cornered the market on cumulative impact. Our environmental victories have been both real (giving a false sense of hope) and they erode giving way to defense-only, despair and the sense of a weakened movement.

The only possible solution that I can imagine is for development itself to be the leader toward recovery and sustainability. And agriculture can be the tool. http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2031

Check out the the visions embedded in the approachs of the Biochar Fund in Africa http://biocharfund.org/ and the global International Biochar Initiative http://www.biochar-international.org/

Posted by Lou Gold on 16 Apr 2010

Meanwhile, methane gas drilling is completely exempt from all environmental laws, resulting from the 2005 Energy Law passed under Dick Cheney's (of Halliburton) manipulation during the corrupt Bush administration (see for example the movie Gasland). Water contamination and marine organism morbidity and mortality is rising as a major issue concerning everything from pharma to fossil and fissile "fuels."

We can not have "environmentalism" (ie. public welfare) with a government defined by corporatism, kleptocracy, plutocracy and corruption. This change could begin by "No person shall lobby government who is paid to do so" legislation and removing all corporate campaign financing. Until then, we are clearly headed downhill.

Posted by James Newberry on 17 Apr 2010

I studied air pollution technology and the potential for climate change from greenhouse gases in 1976. One factor I rarely hear mentioned these days is the mountain forming currently occurring at a steady pace. So, if you want to climb Everest, don't dally. It gets a bit taller every day. I bring this up, because as I recall, those mountain ranges are made of Granite. As magma cools, doesn't it absorb an awful lot of carbon; say more that all that is created by burning fossil fuels?

I'm not in favor of burning carbon. My personal favorite solution is hydroelectric dams producing hydrogen. I expect my former position as an economist for the Corps of Engineers is showing, but you have the water and the power for the Hydrolysis, right? I think T. Boone Pickens is almost there. He thinks he needs transmission lines for his wind farms. I think not. He just needs a water source.

Posted by Robert L. Arnold, MFS Yale '77, CFP, EA on 22 Apr 2010

For what it's worth, here's how I see it: Environmentalists believe the sky is falling or has already fallen. They basically demand unconditional change and spend most of their energy "preaching to the choir". They really don't communicate well with "the other side". Their behaviors have included a mixture of the sincere, the exaggerated, and the profit motive, which is hypocritical.

The "opposition" also involves a spectrum of social feelings and self-interest. It is currently quite skeptical, doesn't like red herrings (the spotted owl cause was really about shutting down the timber industry) and doesn't like being forced into what others may want, even though there may be support for mutual, common sense change. The "opposition" has witnessed angry people offering a cure that in many cases is worse than the disease. It feels that environmentalists do not understand what it takes to start or stay in business, nor do they care, so the end justifies the means.

The sum of this divide is that Environmentalists have FAILED to formulate a WIN-WIN approach to the problem. WIN-WIN does not mean others should agree on what is good for them, it means BOTH parties feel good overall about the change, because they can visualize and believe in net positives for their interests as well. Find the win-win, and you will make better progress.

Posted by Allan Halbert on 12 May 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Denis Hayes was national coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970 and is the international chair of Earth Day 2010. He serves as president of the Bullitt Foundation and chairman of the board of trustees of the American Solar Energy Society. During the the Carter administration, he was director of the federal Solar Energy Research Institute. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, Hayes outlined a new energy strategy for the United States.



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