We were around for the first Earth Day in 1970.
We clearly recall the incident a year earlier that spurred Congress and President Richard Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency when the Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie in Cleveland, literally caught fire after a spark from an industrial plant on the shoreline ignited the chemicals and other pollutants that laced the river.
The Boston area was not much better. The mid-1960s song, Dirty Water, which is played at Fenway after a Red Sox victory, was about the famously-polluted Charles River. In addition, until the Deer Island treatment plant was built in the early 1990s, Boston Harbor was considered the most-polluted harbor in the U.S.
The Clean Water Act and the modern Clean Air Act, both of which enjoyed wide bipartisan support in Congress, came into existence in the aftermath of the creation of the EPA as the result of the environmental movement and enjoyed widespread support throughout the country.
However, terms such as global warming and climate change were not in the lexicon at that time. We thought that if we could clean-up our waterways and air by reducing the levels of pollutants, everything would be fine.
And to a large extent, the goals of cleaner air — lead was removed from gasoline, there are far fewer coal-burning plants — and cleaner water — we now can swim in the Charles and Boston Harbor — have been attained.
But fast-forwarding 50 years, we now can see that we did not anticipate the global scale that air and water pollution would achieve thanks to industrial development in Third World countries and real estate development in our country.
Nor did we know then that the buildup of greenhouse gases would lead to a warmer and more dangerous planet. Indeed, we recall reading in U.S. News and World Report a cover story in the mid-1980s that predicted that the effect of air pollution would be a colder planet. According to the article, the climate in Florida would resemble that of New England within 100 years or so because, it was theorized, smog would block out the sun’s rays.
But, as is evident today in the news headlines every day, just the opposite is occurring.
The Antarctic, the coldest location on the planet, recently experienced an episode of warm weather unlike any ever observed, with temperatures over the eastern Antarctic ice sheet soaring 50 to 90 degrees above normal. The warmth has smashed records and shocked scientists.
At the globe’s other pole, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet and atmospheric scientists are trying to better understand the processes contributing to such swiftly-rising temperatures.
In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef continues to experience unprecedented coral bleaching because of rising seawater temperatures. In Florida, the manatees are dying at unprecedented rates because they are starving, thanks to the run-off from housing and agricultural developments that is choking the seagrass, their main food source.
All in all, our planet is in far worse shape, despite many notable successes, than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. And the sad reality is that at the rate we’re going, in another 52 years things are going to be exponentially worse.