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Contemplating Earth Day’s 51-year midlife crisis

At 51, Earth Day is in a midlife crisis. So, let’s look at its past, present, and future.

Born in 1970, Earth Day was an outcome of the tumultuous ’60s. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, sounded the alarm about pesticide residues in people and nature. Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River, awash in oil and sewage sludge, was on fire. Our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, was facing extinction.

In response to public outcry, President Richard Nixon (R) created the EPA and signed the Endangered Species Act, two of the nation’s premier eco-achievements. At the time, just five nations had satellite launching capabilities and Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong took that “one giant leap for mankind.” Returning astronauts shared their outer-worldly experience.

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty.” — Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, returning from the 1974 lunar mission.

Today, there are 2,787 artificial satellites orbiting the planet, some equipped with powerful telescopes probing the cosmic echo of the big bang; others monitoring our global footprint. Scientists read satellite tracking systems like warning lights on a car’s dashboard. Imagine driving your car with all warning lights on at the same time. That’s pretty much what thousands of scientists have warned in witnessing an overheating planet and our expansive ecological footprint.

And while Earth Day didn’t start with this in mind, those scientists are convinced that climate change acting in concert with our destruction of forests and other ecosystems are now the dominant threats to the planet’s life support systems. In the spirit of Earth Day, it’s certainly appropriate to sound the alarm.

This is not chicken-little alarmism; the warnings are already here in the Rogue Valley too. On Sept. 8, just hours before the Almeda fire, I was writing about how weather tracking systems lit up my screen during an unusual occurrence of high winds, triple digit temperatures, and severe drought — conditions that computer models predict will become our new abnormality. By mid-day, my power went off, and like so many, I soon became a fire evacuee. Climate change tragically arrived at my doorstep. The Almeda fire had nothing to do with the need to thin the forest; rather it had a surreal climate feel to it.

We know the cause of Earth’s fever — unprecedented build-up of greenhouse gases mainly from fossil fuel, agricultural and forestry emissions. If left unchecked, it will soon endanger the planet’s life support systems. Consider, Alaska is overheating at a velocity faster than just about any place on Earth, displacing indigenous villages; sea level rise from melting glaciers is forcing island nations to abandon; heat waves in Europe have devastating consequences; and fires blow up during extreme fire-weather, racing through heavily logged areas.

By the time Earth Day is in its 60s, the carbon pollution impacts could very well eclipse the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing the climate emergency, President Joe Biden’s climate plan includes jobs-promoting upgrades to transportation and energy infrastructure; clean, renewable energy; and electric vehicles. His ambitious plan also calls for tripling the acreage of lands and waters in protected areas for their climate benefits by 2030.

Caring for nature is in everyone’s best interests as global pandemics have been linked to destruction of wild areas and dislocation of wild animals — some harboring transmittable diseases, others Lyme disease.

Protecting older forests also needs to take center stage in Biden’s climate plan as these forests store far more carbon than logged ones. In the Pacific Northwest and Tongass rainforest in Alaska, older forests have more carbon per acre than even tropical rainforests. Our older forests are “working lands” champs, as the sum of their ecosystem parts includes carbon absorption, water purification, protection from floods, hunting and fishing opportunities, traditional tribal uses and recreation. To ensure these amenities continue, Biden needs to place all the nation’s older federal forests and large carbon-absorbing trees into a “strategic carbon reserve network,” as part of our climate commitments.

We also have to rethink fire safety. That means elected officials allocating taxpayer dollars to neighborhood firewise planning, retrofitting existing and building new homes with fire-resistant materials, and keeping future development out of harm’s way. Every dollar spent on backcountry logging is a dollar lost to communities.

Young people can lead the way to a safer world. Greta Thunberg inspired a climate-savvy generation (#FridaysforFuture) and she is not alone as young climate activists spread their inspiring message. Our Children’s Trust, teaming with NASA Goddard scientist James Hansen, is working to secure the legal right to a safe climate. Endangered species youth activists are bringing wild things back from the brink. We are all part of one global family as the work to mainstream Earth Day has never been more urgent in a midlife crisis.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph. D., chief scientist for wild-heritage.org, is an award-winning scientist with over 200 peer-reviewed articles and books, including his July 2021 book, “Conservation Science & Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power.”