2001-2015: The partisan divide deepens …

With 30 years of continuing momentum behind it, Earth Day 18 years ago entered the new Millennium bigger than ever. The UN announced preparations for Earth Day 2000 a full year ahead of the fact.

Multi-cultural hands surrounding earth graphic

On the domestic front, however, partisan political debate was taking hold. President George W. Bush continued to observe Earth Day, but he used it to promote his Clear Skies Initiative, which many environmentalists argued would do more damage than good.

The Obama Administration, on the other hand, took several major steps forward in environmental policy, including signing the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The President in 2015 devoted an entire Earth Day speech to climate action. But despite widespread public support for his policies, a wedge was widening between conservative factions and environmental issues and organizations.

At the same time, historically underrepresented people were finally getting a bit closer to the mainstream environmental arena. Some key mainstream environmental leaders during the Obama tenure included Lisa Jackson, who headed up the EPA, and Jerome Ringo, the first African-American to chair a major U.S. conservation organization, the National Wildlife Federation.

Still, a 2014 study found that, among 38 environmental organizations, minorities made up a scant 15.4 percent of the workforce, mostly in lower-level positions, while white people held 89 percent of the leadership positions.

So, how did Earth Day fare through this decade-plus of growing political disconnect? The answer is, it’s complicated. The number of participants worldwide continued to grow, but so did the level of vocal criticism.

By 2010, commercialization had reached such a fever pitch that Hayes, the Earth Day coordinator, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “This ridiculous perverted marketing has cheapened the concept of what is really green.” Still, he continued to organize Earth Day events. Concerns over greenwashing alongside corporate inaction continued to grow so that by 2015, it wasn’t too surprising when a Grist writer decried Earth Day as a “symbol” that “doesn’t matter anymore.”

For some people, however, it would begin to matter a whole lot more once Donald J. Trump rolled into Washington as the 45th President of the U.S.

Bringing protesters to the streets once more

Everything changed in January 2017. For one thing, a number of  major corporations concerned by Trump’s interest in pulling out of the Paris Agreement signed a letter urging action. More also ramped up their own efforts to address climate, not just sponsoring Earth Day parades, but going all-in for renewable energy and zero net-waste campaigns. Greenwashing remained a concern, but not as big a concern as posed by an incoming president who decried climate change as a Chinese “hoax.”

At the same time, street-level, Americans were once again raising their voices, as they had throughout the ’60s, going beyond that first Earth Day under President Trump. Consider: the Women’s March, the Science March, the Climate March, and Standing Rock.

“Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired the largest wave of protests in America since the Vietnam War,” according to Rolling Stone. The Crowd Counting Consortium, a new academic effort to count protest numbers, listed more than 8,700 protests in the United States, beginning with the Women’s March on the day after Trump’s inauguration, January 21, 2017, and on through December 31, 2017.

Trump tweet
Trump tweets his support for Earth Day 2017 … with a ‘but ….’

What Trump critics perceived as an anti-environment, anti-immigrant, and anti-feminism president has brought back up with a vengeance all manner of social justice issues, many festering under the surface for years.

Earth Day 2017 was not immune. Despite extensive, and in many cases successful, moves to repeal Obama administration environmental policies, Trump followed presidential convention in observing Earth Day, commenting that “as we observe Earth Day, I hope that our nation can come together to give thanks for the land we all love and call home.” Later that day, however, he Tweeted that while he is “committed” to clean air and water, people should remember that “jobs matter.”

The Earth Day Network, for its part, was already tackling one of the major environmental elephants in the room that year, with its 2017 theme pre-set, appropriately, as Environmental and Climate Literacy. It had also teamed up with the March for Science to co-host the 2017 Earth Day.

Once again taking the public case to the National Mall, a crowd of around 100,000 people rallied for science, in partnership with organizations that included the Hip Hop Caucus, Green Latinos, the National Society of Black Physicists, Girls in Tech, OUT for Sustainability, and EcoWomen.

Despite the array of inclusion-oriented partner organizations, however, there remained tension around diversity in organizing the event. According to Undark and some others, the @ScienceMarchDC Twitter account revealed a disconnect between scientists who had wanted to ensure the march was inclusive, and those who were concerned it would be too political.

The election had brought out a more bitter political division than what many under-30 Americans had experienced in their lifetimes.

People's Climate March photo
Diverse interests seeking greater voice. (Credit: Becker1999/Flkr)

Exactly one week after Earth Day 2017, the People’s Climate March very intentionally played up the diversity of people supporting climate action. The flow – and signage – of the march visibly called out numerous different sections of marchers, including indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQI, women, labor organizers, children and parents, scientists and educators, faith communities, anti-corporate activists, and environmentalists.

This level of inclusion was unprecedented in major environmental campaigns. But what could happen if Earth Day could also be inspired by the same type of intersectional sensibility?

Envisioning a more inclusive Earth Day 2020

The Earth Day Network has some bold plans on its path to the 50th anniversary 2020 campaign, from this year’s call to end plastic pollution, to continuing efforts to step up climate literacy and plant more trees.

But, as with any major movement, much can be done also outside the formal organizational purview.

By purposefully embracing potential intersections between environment and other social issues, Earth Day organizers on the national, state, and local level could perhaps better engage historically underrepresented communities, offering real incentives making Earth Day everyone’s day.

More than just a feel-good approach, advocates point to a few simple reasons that approach makes sense:

  • Climate change is a civil rights issue. Minorities and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, struggling the most with pollution, food insecurity, and the lack of resources to rebuild after a disaster.
    But many of these voices are not being heard, often because they’re not being invited to connect with the issues. For example, polls show that Latinos are much more concerned about global warming than are non-Latinos, and yet, seven in ten Latinos indicate they have never been contacted by an organization working to reduce global warming.
  • Climate change is a feminist issue. The UN recognizes it as such, having developed a Gender Action Plan to recognize and strengthen the role of women in climate action and policy. In many countries, including the U.S., mothers motivated by concerns over children’s health have taken lead roles on environmental pollution issues.
  • Climate change is an indigenous peoples’ issue. Like others who live off the land, indigenous communities are often on the front-lines of climate change. And their knowledge may be critical to understanding climate change, and mitigating its effects. A recent Seattle Times contributor points to the 10,000-plus years of “field observation” by indigenous peoples around the world as empirical evidence about rising sea levels and increasing fire and flood events.

The push for a larger umbrella may be uncomfortable for some, as seen to some extent during last year’s March for Science. But, others see it as a must in any successful movement today. For instance, Van Jones, former Clinton appointee and now a cable TV personality, has said that getting closer to the communities most vulnerable to climate change, or, “recognizing the other ‘environmentalisms’,” is critical to the broad environmental movement’s success.

And from Black Lives Matters to Standing Rock, from #MeToo to the Pride movement, many diverse communities have also helped open the way for broader involvement. Consider:

More examples exist, and more will pour in as people continue to take action. Perhaps more will be revealed in the coming 2018 Earth Day on April 22.

One thing is sure: Earth Day 2020, marking the 50th anniversary in a presidential election year, could well be bigger than ever. By ensuring it remains or becomes relevant to the many diverse communities who share this Earth, perhaps bigger can also be better.

Return to Part 1: Earth Day 2018: A people-powered movement

Daisy Simmons is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in research-driven storytelling. In addition to contributing to Yale Climate Connections since early 2016, she also...