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On Earth Day 50, the emerging challenge is climate change

A major oil spill off of Santa Barbara,

A major oil spill off of Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 helped inspire the creation of the first Earth Day a year later. Above, prison inmates clean up the oil-soaked beach in 1969. Credit: AP / Wally Fong

In the early days of 1969, a massive oil spill from a drilling rig off Southern California despoiled the coastline and killed thousands of birds, dolphins and seals, outraging the public. A few months later, the chemical-polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.

Belching smokestacks were part of our national landscape, along with mounds of roadside litter, toxic dumps, raw sewage, vanishing wilderness and big gas-guzzling cars.

With the health of the planet at stake, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson proposed an Earth Day celebration. He hoped to tap into the kind of energy he saw in the student-led anti-war movement to thrust environmental protection into our national conversation and make it part of the political agenda.

He succeeded, with a strong bipartisan response.

Some 20 million Americans participated in the inaugural event on April 22, 1970. Now Earth Day is celebrated worldwide. It seems there is scarcely a municipality that doesn’t mark the day with a tree-planting, litter pickup or replenishment of beach grass.

As the 50th celebration of Earth Day approaches Monday, it’s clear Nelson’s brainstorm has produced victories across a wide spectrum of concerns.

Most of our air and water are demonstrably cleaner. Many endangered species have been protected. Lead has been removed from gasoline. DDT and PCBs are banned. The ozone layer is healing thanks to the outlawing of chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons. And an environmental impact statement is required for many developments, putting the burden of proof on the polluter, not the protester.

But some challenges still are not met. New ones, like climate change, have arisen. And gains seemingly won are in danger of being lost in the Trump administration’s fervor to loosen regulatory restrictions.

Newsday’s editorial board warned of the difficulty of sustaining progress on that first celebration in 1970:

“If Earth Day is to be the day its sponsors envision — the formal beginning of a nationwide drive to cleanse this grubby and put-upon world — we are all going to have to realize that every day is Earth Day.”

The key to progress, in other words, and the trick then as now, is to convert the enthusiasm most of us feel for protecting the planet on Earth Day into action on every other day that moves us toward that goal.

On that count, the scorecard is mixed.

Polls and election results on Long Island routinely show that clean water is important to voters, who are willing to pay more in taxes to accomplish that. But many of us still spray pesticides in our yards and over-fertilize our lawns, and those chemicals make their way into our water.

We don’t toss as much garbage out our car windows, but too many of us don’t recycle. And our tendency to buy cheap, disposable products instead of things that last, and to throw out old items instead of repairing, recycling or reusing them, continues undiminished.

With climate change emerging as a top environmental concern, some people are installing solar arrays on their roofs and switching to hybrid or electric cars. But with gas prices relatively cheap, we’ve returned to a time when gas-thirsty vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks are more popular.

The point is that all of us have a role to play, and our individual contributions can add up to big changes. That’s true not just for what we do, but for what we say. Because safeguarding our Earth also requires government action, and that rarely happens without the public demanding it.

The outpouring of public support in 1970 led to the formation later that year of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and to the spate of legislation — the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and others — that followed, creating the legal and regulatory framework for decades of environmental protections. Policies that ensued have, in turn, changed our own behavior — like nickel deposits on bottles and bans on plastic bags.

Climate change-related policies also are more likely to happen when a new critical mass of Americans protests long and loud, and elects leaders ready to push change. The demand is growing. It’s why new office buildings boast of meeting green building standards and have parking lots with prime spots for plug-in cars, why the food industry is producing burgers made with plants not beef, why wind and solar power are increasing exponentially, why seaside residents are raising their homes, and why young people are marching once again.

In many ways, the battle has not changed. On one side are people seeking to protect the world in which they live. On the other are corporations and their government enablers seeking to protect their bottom lines, and people who want cars that guzzle gas.

The mission, too, is the same: “that uncontroversial goal — a livable world,” as the editorial board put it on April 22, 1970.

Monday is Earth Day. Do something to make a difference. And do it again.

We’ve come a long way. It would be madness to go backward now.