Fifth Avenue, New York on the first Earth Day in 1970.

By Leon Gettler

29 May 2013 — The world celebrated Earth Day last month. Don’t worry if you missed it, you wouldn’t have been on your own. The annual event is not generating the same sort of energy and attention it used to get 43 years ago when it started.

As Nicolas Lemann points out in the New Yorker, Earth Day on 22 April 1970 took the world by storm.

He says it “generated more than 12,000 events across the country, many of them in high schools and colleges, with more than 35,000 speakers. Today devoted ten hours of airtime to it. Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of its members spoke at Earth Day events. In all, millions of people participated.

This activity was largely uncoordinated. Earth Day had a tiny national staff – a handful of young activists – and there were no big environmental groups around to get behind it. The staff imposed minimal central direction over the local activity, and chose not to put on a main event, like a march on Washington.”

You don’t see that happening anymore. Climate sceptics might seize on that and say the environmental movement has lost momentum and political clout. That’s just garbage.

The reality is that Earth Day paved the way for massive legislative change right around the world. In the United States alone, it produced the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and to the creation, just eight months after the event, of the Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout the 1970s, during the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Congress passed one environmental bill after another.

This was radical stuff. It established national controls on air and water pollution. And in Australia, we had federal and state laws passed in the 1990s and beyond controlling how we manage the environment.

Still, you have to wonder why the green movement isn’t getting as much political momentum as it did in the 1970s. True, there is the Greens, but they seem to appeal only to a small part of the electorate. And it’s harder to get real climate legislation up these days.

In America, for example, cap-and-trade has never been approved by Congress and it’s come down to the point where vice President Joe Biden is telling Rolling Stone that President Obama is determined to make global warming a top priority of his second term with or without congressional approval.

“In the very beginning, we decided that we had to move on this. And we thought, cap-and-trade. But it got shut down, even when we had a Democratic Congress. So from that point on, the president has been trying to figure out how he can use his executive authority to make some real changes.

We’ve been dealing with a Congress where a significant portion of the other party thinks there’s no such thing as global warming. On top of that, we were in the midst of the deepest recession we’ve had since the Great Depression. So it was easy for the energy-interest guys to make the case that anything we would do to deal with global warming would be a job-killer.

You’d see ads all over the country, an African American or a hard-hat guy – classic Democrat, you’d think – saying, “I’m an energy voter, and this idea the Obama administration has is going to cost you your jobs.”

In Australia, Tony Abbott is on Black Caviar odds to win the next election and has vowed to dismantle Australia’s clean energy legislation as his first priority. Indeed, he says he will call a double dissolution election if he is unable to repeal the carbon tax in government.

Quite apart from that, there are polls suggesting the public is not convinced climate change is a problem. According to one American study from the Pew Research Centre in the US in 2012, the belief that the Earth’s temperature is rising is down 10 per cent from 2006 at 67 per cent of responders. Pew found 42 per cent, or fewer than half, agreed with the statement that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, down five points in the last six years.

In Australia, the annual Lowy Institute survey in 2012 has found that only a third (36 per cent) of Australians now support the most aggressive form of action. This is down from two-thirds (68 per cent) back in 2006 who said, “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.”

The largest proportion (45 per cent) of Australians now support the intermediate proposition that “the problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost”. And support for the most sceptical position that “until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs” remains steady compared with last year.

What’s significant, however, is that 18 per cent of Australians now say this compared with only seven per cent back in 2006.

So the legislative and public opinion climate is very different now from what it was when Earth Day was launched in 1970.

And in the meantime, the world seems to have reached a tipping point with climate change where for the first time in human history, concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2, have risen above four million parts per million. Many climate scientists have warned that 350ppm is the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere.

Financial Times economics writer Martin Wolf says it’s a sign that climate sceptics have won. Certainly the opinion polls would suggest that. “Sceptics convinced that the best thing to do is nothing should stop moaning: they have won… the attempt to shift our choices away from the ones now driving ever-rising emissions has failed. It will, for now, continue to fail.

The reasons for this failure are deep-seated. Only the threat of more imminent disaster is likely to change this and, by then, it may well be too late. This is a depressing truth. It may also prove a damning failure.”

Carbon trading schemes are difficult to get up and maintain politically. Opposition from vested interests will always turn it into a political hot potato. But Wolf is missing the point.

Sure the environmental movement has more challenges politically. But there’s a good reason for that: it’s been a victim of its own success.

Think of all the environmental laws that have been passed since the first Earth Day in 1970. In Australia, for example, we have the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, administered by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, which covers the assessment and approval process of national environmental and cultural concerns, targeting areas like the sea, heritage, imports, hazardous waste and the Energy Efficiency Opportunities Program which requires businesses that use large amounts of energy to identify, evaluate and report publicly on opportunities to save energy.

Add to that other acts like the National Water Commission Act 2004, the Water Act 2007, the Water Efficiency and Labelling Act 2005, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Act 2001, the National Environment Protection Council Act 1994 and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. There are also state and territory environment laws, not to mention specific guidelines for how the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act would apply to local government.

None of this would have been possible without pressure from the environmental movement and events like Earth Day.

The ground has shifted. As a result, environmentalists are now targeting business as the next big battle ground. Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben told ABC’s Lateline that the environmental movement will now target super funds and institutions to pull their investments out of carbon intensive industries.

“These companies, their business plan is by any measure not compatible with a working future for this planet,’’ McKibben says. “Once you know that math, and it comes from a team of financial analysts in the UK about a year ago – once you know it then you know that if we don’t make big changes soon, the end of this story is essentially written. Our job is to rewrite it, and we’re beginning to build that movement in Australia and around the world that can stand up to the richest industry we’ve ever seen… we have a list of 200 companies that we’d like people to divest from, the biggest carbon reserves in the world.

“So far, early days, but a wide variety of American institutions have begun to divest… it makes no sense to pay for your retirement by investing in companies that guarantee you won’t have a planet worth retiring on. And two, as we’re increasingly finding out, this is a bad bet economically, this industry… A bet on the fossil fuel industry, an investment in the fossil fuel industry is a bet that the world will do nothing about climate change, that it’ll stand idly by and watch events like the summer you’ve just come through and not take any serious action. If you’re comfortable with that bet, both practically and morally, then by all means invest in fossil fuel. But if it makes you queasy, either financially or from the point of view that you’re betting on the destruction of the planet, then I think a lot of people are gonna start to move their money.”

So instead of a political formula, we can expect more environmental activists to pursue a financial solution that will hit business where it hurts. If they have the same success they have had with all the environmental laws brought in since Earth Day, we can expect a massive change.