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Earth Day with Ken Alex and Ethan Elkind

By Rochelle Gluzman and Megan Bergeron

What is Earth Day and how did it come to be?

Earth Day, which falls on April 22 and is the annual celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement, began in 1970. It is a day of unity for environmentalists, groups and organizations mobilized around specific environmental issues, and everyone in between. Once focused on more local environmental concerns, now on its 51st anniversary, the meaning of Earth Day is giving way to more organized international concerns of inspiring global action on climate change.  

Earth Day came to be as the environmental impacts of 150 years of industrial development started to become clear. The connection between industrial activity and environmental degradation was largely overlooked before the 1960s.  Air pollution, pesticide impacts, polluted waters, leaded gas in inefficient vehicles, soil depletion and biodiversity loss were largely ignored, seen rather as a modest byproduct of industrial progress.  

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which documented the extreme harm of pesticides, was a singular moment in the environmental movement. Silent Spring, which initially sold 500,000 copies in 24 countries, established in the public mind the clear relationship between pollution and public health, making it impossible to be widely ignored any longer.

After Silent Spring, the modern environmental movement gained momentum at a rapid clip. The 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California only accelerated it’s drive. For Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and leading conservationist, the still abundant energy of the student anti-war movement converged with the devastation of the oil spill, and the alarm inspired by Carson’s book. Motivated by the student anti-war protests and concern over pollution, Senator Nelson began planning for the first Earth Day, which was to be composed of teach-ins on college campuses. With the help of Congressman Pete McCloskey and activist Denis Hayes, the campus teach-ins were in full swing and set for the date of April 22nd (which conveniently fell right in between spring break and finals). 

As the environmental cause gained momentum, it quickly found support beyond college campuses. Recognizing this, Hayes seized the opportunity to expand the event nationwide, officially naming it Earth Day. The first Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans to take to the streets, while college campuses across the nation protested against environmental destruction.

The first Earth Day captured American’s growing awareness of environmental degradation and ushered in dramatic change. At the end of the year 1970, the United States Environmental Agency was formed and Congress passed the Clean Air Act. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, and then in 1973, the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. These laws still form the primary environmental protections fifty years later.  

By 1990, Earth Day had become a global phenomenon, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries. Over the years, the purpose behind Earth Day has evolved. In the 2000s, it centered around global warming and clean energy. In the 2010s, the goals shifted to that of combating climate change denial and big oil. 

Today, Earth Day is the “largest secular observance in the world” according to, and is about much more than environmental destruction. The intersectionality of the environmental movement reflects the changing frames of injustice – for humans, and the planet. With the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements coinciding with Earth Day this year, a significant focus will be  to emphasize environmental justice; the disparate environmental impacts that BIPOC (Black, Indiginous, and People of Color) communities bear; as well as the impacts borne by essential workers. 

Earth Day 2021 includes the added layer of a global pandemic, which can be viewed, in part, as the result of human encroachment on the environment (resulting in increased risk of animal to human transfer of disease).  The pandemic combined with climate change underscores the urgency of the message of April 22.  

And from all of us at Climate Break, happy Earth Day! 


Earth Day:

Ken Alex’s Article on Earth Day:

Environmental Protection Agency:

What is Environmental Justice:

The Endangered Species Act:


Ethan: This is Ethan Elkind of Climate Break, and we’re here with Ken Alex. He is a longtime environmental attorney. He is my colleague at the UC Berkeley School of Law Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. Most recently, he was senior advisor on climate change to former California Governor Jerry Brown, and he’s also the godfather of Climate Break. Climate Break was his idea. And it’s really his concept that we’ve been able to launch. And so we’re very pleased to have him today here with us to talk about Earth Day. I want to start with the first question for you, which is how did Earth Day start and how does it relate to the climate movement?

Ken: Well, thanks, Ethan, for inviting me. It’s great to be here in our inaugural session, you and me talking to each other. So Earth Day started in 1970, so it’s 51 years old on April 22nd. That will be the 51st Earth Day. It was bipartisan. What a concept. It had co-chairs Senator Gaylord Nelson, was a Democrat, and then Pete McCloskey, was a Republican from California, was the co-chair of the inaugural Earth Day, and the executive director who really created it and put it together was a guy named Denis Hayes, he is still around and still doing environmental work. Really big thinker on environment, had this vision. The very first Earth Day had about 20 million people come out and express their view that we’re not doing enough on environment. So, pretty great initial start. And here we are 51 years later, still doing stuff. But let me turn around and ask you, where do you think we are? Does Earth Day have any meaning? And can it have meaning? 

Ethan: That’s a good question. I think actually it seems more relevant. You know, I think of the environmental movement back then as more about local environmental impacts, you know, air quality concerns, water quality concerns, endangered species. And I don’t think climate was on the radar other than just for a few academics who are studying it. So it seems like maybe there’s an opportunity now to really refocus Earth Day around climate solutions. But I don’t know. At the same time, you know, climate now is like this ever pervasive thing in the background of a lot of our politics and in the foreground for a lot of people who really care about it. I mean, polls show that it’s a top five issue for a lot of most voters. So I wonder then, if Earth Day is as important, given that it feels like every day is sort of earth collapse day, but if it can provide a way to advance some solutions and galvanize more public attention to it, that seems like a very positive thing. 

Ken: Well, remember in 1970? I don’t remember. Think about it. Historically, in 1970, there was a Vietnam War and protests were at – you know, it was in 1968, which was probably the height. But still, 1970, huge protests. And also the civil rights movement. So the environment, you know, it’s in a way similar to now where we got a pandemic, we have immigration, we have economic issues, environment is one of many issues. But the Earth Day concept was really able to galvanize public attention in a way that I don’t even feel climate change, which, as you say, is much more profound, is doing now. One of the really great things that came in part from Earth Day, but was really later in the year 1970, was an effort by Dennis Hayes and others to really make environment a political issue. And what they did is they identified what they called the Dirty Dozen, 12 members of Congress who were facing tough reelection battles. They were close elections, and all of those 12 had bad records on environment. And they made that a political issue in those 12 campaigns. And so when the first one of them lost in a primary, they took credit. The environmental folks took credit for that loss. And I think 7 of the 12 eventually lost and suddenly all the members of Congress took notice. And it strikes me that we have, as you said, it’s a top issue for many, many people. And in the last election, the Democratic voters had it very high on their agenda. But it doesn’t feel like there’s been any elections that have been won or lost on the issue particularly. And I think that’s something that hopefully we can learn from what happened in 1970, because once it becomes a voting issue, you can no longer have an entire political party, the Republican Party, that in essence denies climate change to this day. 

Ethan: Ken, I have to ask you, is the nature of climate change just really distinct from other environmental issues like landscapes and endangered species with charismatic fauna and flora to some extent? I mean, when we think about those issues, they get bipartisan support. You see a lot of Republicans that still support the Endangered Species Act, for example, still really popular. But climate change, as you mentioned, is really a polarizing kind of a topic still for at least the Republican Party. So is it possible to turn the movement into a political one in the same way that we saw with the Earth Day of 1970? 

Ken: Well, you have to think it’s inevitable because the march of climate change, you got hurricanes, you got flooding, you got drought, you’ve got snowpack, wildfires overwhelming the entire system, sea level rise, etc., etc.. There is no escape from climate change. So this idea that it’s somehow partisan is simply a political creation of a party that wants to stay in power, that is also playing with white nationalism as a way to maintain power. So, you know that that’s a short term game and unfortunately we have to act in the short term. So we’ve got to figure out how to make progress on this as rapidly as possible. And it’s, you know, the idea that an entire political party is denying science in this way is really distressing. So what are your thoughts about how – you know, we have Earth Day coming up, the president of the United States Biden has invited 40 world leaders to come have a conference around climate change on Earth Day. What are the possibilities? What are you looking for? 

Ethan: When I think about climate change and how we could see action, I mean, you blame the Republican Party leadership to some extent. But when I think about people who got really dug in that I’ve just talked to about climate change, is that a lot of it boils down to their fears of what sacrifices it might mean for them to have to address climate change. So some people ideologically are opposed to government involvement in anything. And so they see climate change as sort of an excuse to overregulate. But I think for other people, maybe people who are less ideologically driven, they think about having stuff taken away from them. You know, jobs. And a lot of states are dependent on fossil fuel jobs. A lot of parts of California are dependent on fossil fuel jobs. Or other conveniences that they have in their lives, whether it’s a natural gas appliance or a hamburger. And so for me, where I see the positive action is building up industries and jobs and technologies that address climate change, that bring a lot of those benefits that people are worried about losing. So if it’s jobs or economic development or conveniences, I mean, you think about the success of like Teslas, for example, or electric vehicles. People are driving them and don’t care at all about climate change because they like the technology and they see it as exciting. So when I think about where a climate movement has had success, it’s been in trying to build up new industries that are clean technology industry. To get to your question about Biden, you know, I think if there’s some way to harness that momentum and really focus on – and he’s done this, to what extent thinking about the job benefits in particular and the technology benefits. But I don’t know. It’s a question I wanted to ask you, which is, if you were in charge of designing a National Earth Day event to try to galvanize climate action and maybe replicate that Dirty Dozen idea from the early seventies, how would you do it? 

Ken: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, the only person who’s really had success of late, it feels like Greta Thunberg, you know, with student strikes, and that has kind of fallen away a bit. She’s taken a well-deserved break and written a book. But I do wonder if that concept of student strikes and more direct protest, if that’s what we need right now, to really bring this back to the fore. I’ve been thinking a fair amount about can we learn anything from the pandemic? Because in some ways, the impacts of the pandemic on people around the world are a preview of, I think, some of the impacts of climate change, not in the sense that we’re going to be stuck in our homes. But, you know, you think about early in the pandemic, because essential workers were impacted, we saw meatpacking plants having problems and some impacts on food supply. I think those kinds of disruptions are not unlikely in a climate change future. And so are there things that we can learn from the pandemic as a way to start getting people to think about really profound changes that could happen dramatically and quickly? So that’s one piece of it. And another, you raised the point about endangered species and charismatic animals. Well, those are at risk. There’s been an effort to use things like polar bears, which fit that category as the canaries in the coal mine, if you will. That hasn’t been terribly effective. I’m not quite sure why, but we have to keep working and thinking about ways to break through the endless news of the day, as Jerry Brown likes to call it. What is Kim Kardashian doing today? Well, you know, hopefully she’s starting to think about climate change like the rest of us. What are your thoughts? I mean, I don’t have a great set of answers, but I think there’s some places we should be really thinking about. 

Ethan: Well, I like your idea about thinking about different messengers and of youths being involved or moms for housing, the anti-eviction movement that started up in Oakland. So thinking about those kinds of messengers is really important. But you also make a point about how to make this a visual thing for people. And maybe it was Bill McKibben but – I think it was Bill McKibben I was talking about – when he thinks about climate change, it’s very personal and he thinks about landscapes that he loves. And I think many Americans, even the most conservative climate deniers, there’s always some part of the world that they are very attached to, some part of the landscape. Maybe it’s their home, maybe it’s a place that they visited or traveled to that has some meaning to them. And when you think about those places that you love changing, being irreparably damaged in some way by a change in climate, you know, whether it’s in California, redwood groves or oak trees, iconic aspects of our landscape that climate change is threatening. And the idea that this is never going to look like that again, there’s that sense of loss that’s very personal, that may motivate some people, may animate some people. Of course, that’s harder than to craft a national message around that. You don’t have that polar bear kind of thing. But, you know, maybe, maybe that’s one way to at least kind of frame it and get people to think about their change communities. 

Ken: One of the things that we’re trying to do with Climate Break is to really focus on climate solutions and the fact that there are lots of possibilities and lots of incredible work in Berkeley and California and the U.S. and around the world, and that there’s progress to be made. I think we’re making a conscious effort to bring that out and to have some sense of optimism. What are some of the things that, you know, as we come up here on Earth Day 2021, that come to mind for you with solutions, at least some amount of optimism? 

Ethan: So when I think of climate solutions that I’m really optimistic about, I really focus on batteries. They’re just so central to – first of all, transitioning transportation to clean sources. So battery electric vehicles are very understood, I think, at this point. But we need a lot more of them. But then also for decarbonizing the electricity system. And then that’s just kind of the tip of the iceberg because you think about cheap, very energy-dense batteries. I mean, you think about how now they’ve been applied to bicycles and scooters. I mean, there’s a lot of different applications potentially for batteries. So that I think is such an interesting technology because it spans multiple sectors of the economy. And then there are a few other technologies. I mean, these are all very technological solutions, but there’s law and policy pieces to support them. But also potentially with hydrogen, too, because I think about how we need to decarbonize our electricity grid and overbuild essentially solar and wind. Those are the technologies we have now for clean sources of energy. And the idea of transitioning or converting that surplus solar and wind into hydrogen that could be used for all sorts of things, but not the least of which would be keeping the lights on in the dark and non-windy days of the year. I think that is potentially a very promising technology, but it’s just been generally fascinating thinking about where it was just 10, 12 years ago. I mean, solar panels were, you know, 80, 90% more expensive than they are now. There was debate about other types of solar technology, not just solar PV, and that has all faded away as solar PV has become dirt cheap batteries. I mean, I remember having a meeting with the California Energy Commission in 2010 and talking about it, setting a target for the state, an energy storage target. And the researcher has been kind of aghast that lithium ion batteries are $1,000 a kilowatt hour. Now there are $130, $140 a kilowatt hour. So the progress we’ve seen in just a decade really makes me hopeful and makes me think that we could see similar kinds of innovation over the next 10, 20 years that hopefully will get us ahead of the worst of climate change. What do you think is the most hopeful, promising climate solution? 

Ken: Well, it’s interesting because you really answered it in a way that I think about it as well. I go back ten or 15 years, there was no Tesla, really there was no electric vehicle concept. You know, now we’re moving into electric trucks and buses. We’re thinking about autonomous vehicles that could really change our transportation system and do it with electricity. Our electrical system in California and elsewhere is really moving pretty rapidly to non-polluting and non GHG sources. So those things are all appealing and they’ve happened fairly quickly. It does strike me that the next ten years, 10, 15 years, when we really have to make a lot of progress, that we have some potential to make big strides. I’ve been working a fair amount on methane and short lived climate pollutants, which don’t get the attention that they deserve. It turns out that about 45% of the global warming impact from greenhouse gasses comes from short lived climate pollutants. But we mostly have been focusing on CO2, which is most of the other 55%, but short lived climate pollutants, actually, if you stop emitting them, they’ll be out of the atmosphere reasonably quickly, in the case of methane, about 12 to 15 years, whereas CO2 can last 100 years or more, so you won’t see a change in the atmosphere for quite a long time, even when you stop emitting. So short lived climate pollutants are hugely important. And methane is natural gas. It’s a product. It can be captured and used, and we have technologies to really reduce those emissions. They come primarily from the oil and gas sector, from the agriculture sector and from landfills. And if we can get a handle on those, we create more space in the atmosphere and we create more time. And the other thing that I think is moving along reasonably quickly that we want to try to accelerate is direct air capture of CO2 and turning CO2 into things like plastics and other products. It is a viable approach that I think is going to accelerate over the next few years. So I think there are a fair amount of things to be optimistic about. I hope that on Earth Day, April 22nd, everybody comes out and reaffirms their interest in and support for action on the environment, particularly on climate, and that we can start thinking about real political change because there are voting consequences of this set of issues. 

Ethan: Absolutely. No, I think Earth Day is probably more aptly named now than maybe even at the start, because it truly is a planetary global movement that we need here. So, Ken, thanks so much for coming on the Climate Break. And happy Earth Day, everybody. 

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