Earth Day 2020: A global movement with the individual at its core

‘If we are wise we will plan for a post-Covid-19 recovery that kick-starts a green economy’

The actions we take to stay at home, wash our hands and social distance have a national effect and enable government policy to produce an impact. Photograph: Getty

Two newlyweds from Ireland travelled to the east coast of Canada to start a new life 50 years ago – unaware that next door in the US Senator Gaylord Nelson in Wisconsin was busy planning an uprising of grassroots communities and citizens across north America to raise awareness of the need to protect the environment.

Worried about oil spills and pollution he wanted to mobilise people to get informed and to exert pressure on government to adopt policies to protect the environment. And it worked – April 22nd, 1970, became the first Earth Day.

We celebrate the 50th anniversary this week.

Those newlyweds were my parents – now cocooned in Kilkenny due to Covid-19 – and living in a world much changed from the world they lived in in 1970. The child they had in 1972, was born at the start of the Anthropocene; the era where human beings have become the most significant threat to the planet we call home.


I am that child of the Anthropocene. Since 1970 the population of the Earth has more than doubled, that means twice as many people to house, cloth and feed. More people and more consumption means that on average each person is producing 21 per cent more CO2 emissions now, causing global temperatures to increase by one degree.

The original Earth Day sought to mobilise people as individuals and in communities and to create a day for people to act locally. It recognised the power of individual action in demanding policy change. Nelson wondered if it would be possible to “tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause . . . to generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda”.

It worked – Earth Day protests and student demonstrations led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and amendments to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

In 2020 we have a thriving movement of young people demanding climate action and we are faced with a new war where the enemy is an invisible virus that is causing us to come together with a solidarity we haven’t seen in a long time.

We have a fresh opportunity 50 years on to amplify the movement. In 1970, 20 million people across the US took part in Earth Day. I wonder how many will take part this year as celebrations move online and may struggle to get attention when communities and political leaders are occupied by the Covid-19 crisis?

Yet the relevance of individual action and activism has never been more obvious – the actions we take to stay at home, wash our hands and social distance have a national effect and enable government policy to produce an impact. Channelling that same approach into climate action is what we need to do next.

Time for a green economy?

We have 10 years left to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent and increase the resilience of our societies to the effects of climate change. There is no time to waste and if we are wise we will plan now for a recovery from Covid-19 that kick-starts investment in a green economy, evaluates climate risks and plans for a zero-carbon, sustainable Ireland by 2050.

The urgency Nelson felt in 1970 is the same gravity we need today – to drive movements of individuals and communities demanding brave action on climate change from their political leaders. Now is not the time to set the climate and biodiversity aside in the rush to help the economy recover – there is no economy if we damage the planet beyond repair.

Rather it is the time to imagine the society we want to live in and to build back better, to create a better version of the life we had before the pandemic based on the things we really value, like wellbeing, safety, equity and community. In that way we, the children and adults of the Anthropocene, can be a force for planetary good.

  • Dr Tara Shine is an environmentalist, the founder of the climate organisation Change by Degrees and is an adviser to governments and world leaders on climate policy.