Earth Day since 1970: Winning some battles, but losing the war

For those of us who were around for the first Earth Day in 1970, the steady but sure demise of our environment over the past 54 years has been nothing less than depressing.

When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, Americans on all sides of the political spectrum were united in the effort to clean up the environment in the wake of the disastrous oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in January of 1969 and the spectacle of the chemical-laden Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire a few months later.

Congress passed a bill, signed by Richard Nixon, creating the Environmental Protection Agency in December, 1970, and soon thereafter enacted the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act, all of which have accomplished a great deal to make our environment a healthier place both for us and the plants and animals with whom we share this planet.

However, with 50 years of hindsight, it is apparent that we fell victim to the well-worn axiom that we didn’t see the forest for the trees. All of the good that was accomplished by improving our air and water quality and saving some species from extinction has been far outweighed by the insidious onslaught of climate change that threatens to make the planet uninhabitable for almost every living thing, other than perhaps for cockroaches (which have been around for more than 300 million years).

Global warming, both of the air and the oceans, poses an existential threat to life as we know it, and is accelerating faster than even the worst-case scenarios that some climate scientists had predicted. Climate change epitomizes what scientists refer to as a positive feedback loop: The hotter we are today, the hotter we will be tomorrow. 

Ocean temperatures have set heat records every day for the past year, and still are climbing. As a result, more than 50% of the world’s coral reefs presently are “bleached” and dying.

But with the world’s energy needs growing exponentially thanks to the industrialization of underdeveloped nations and the need in developed nations for ever-increasing sources of energy to run our AI computers, the chances of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is all but zero for the foreseeable future.

Even more insidiously, we literally are drowning in a sea of plastic waste. For those of us who grew up in the ‘60s, it is sadly ironic that the catch-word for the future in the movie, The Graduate, was, “Plastics!” — and now, 60 years later, we have learned that microplastics are accumulating in our tissues and in every organ in our bodies because they are in the food we eat and the water we drink.

Perhaps the coup de grace for the planet’s demise is that environmental groups are now their own worst enemies. The push to build wind and solar farms has been met by pushback from groups who insist on mandatory environmental reviews — established by those laws in the 1970s — that can hold up the installation of transmission lines for these clean energy projects for more than a decade.

In short, we have won many battles in the effort to clean up our environment and to save endangered plants and animals since the first Earth Day. We can swim and fish in Boston Harbor and even in the Charles River (the subject of the 1960s rock anthem, Dirty Water). The seal (and great white shark) population, which was non-existent in this area in 1970, has returned to Cape Cod in the tens of thousands each summer.

Although our air and water are free of many of the substances, such as leaded gasoline, emissions from coal-fired power plants, and DDT, that were poisoning the earth in 1970, their removal was just low-hanging fruit, amounting to nothing more than Pyrrhic victories.

The inconvenient truth is that climate change, an unheard-of concept in 1970, has left all living beings (except for the cockroaches) in a far more precarious place than we were 54 years ago.

Batten down the hatches

The Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University has released its annual forecast for the 2024 hurricane season and it is nothing less than frightening, with a prediction that the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season will have activity well above average Their summary is as follows:

“We estimate that 2024 will have 23 named storms (average is 14.4), 115 named storm days (average is 69.4), 11 hurricanes (average is 7.2), 45 hurricane days (average is 27.0), 5 major (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 3.2), and 13 major hurricane days (average is 7.4). The probability of U.S. and Caribbean major hurricane landfall is estimated to be well above its long- period average. We predict Atlantic basin Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) and Net Tropical Cyclone (NTC) activity in 2024 to be approximately 170 percent of their long- term averages.”

The reasons behind the forecast are two-fold: The first is that the El Nino weather pattern of the past few years has changed into a La Nina pattern, which means that the upper-atmospheric wind shear conditions of El Nino that prevent hurricanes from forming will dissipate, thereby creating conditions favorable to hurricane formation.

The second major factor is that ocean water temperatures are soaring beyond anything ever seen before. Warm water temperatures are the fuel for hurricanes, but the unprecedented high ocean temperatures we are experiencing all around the world — every day literally is setting a new record — will provide the rocket fuel that will feed tropical storms that will propel them to strengthen into major hurricane status.

While the change from an El Nino weather pattern to a La Nina pattern is a normal occurrence, the dramatic increase in ocean temperatures is attributable to climate change thanks to the ever-increasing amount of fossil-fuels that the world continues to spew into the atmosphere.

We haven’t had a major hurricane in our little corner of the world in a while, so we are overdue — and thanks to the effects of climate change exacerbating every meteorological event, we could be in for a long, hot — and dangerous — summer and autumn.

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