Today is Earth Day — the last one I’ll celebrate as President. Looking back over the past seven years, I’m hopeful that the work we’ve done will allow my daughters and all of our children to inherit a cleaner, healthier, and safer planet. But I know there is still work to do.
When Secretary of State John Kerry stands with other countries to support this agreement, we’ll advance a plan that prioritizes the health of our planet and our people. And we’ll come within striking distance of enacting the Paris Agreement years earlier than anyone expected.
This is important because the impact of climate change is real. Last summer, I visited Alaska and stood at the foot of a disappearing glacier. I saw how the rising sea is eating away at shorelines and swallowing small towns. I saw how changes in temperature mean permafrost is thawing and the tundra is burning. So we’ve got to do something about it before it’s too late.
As the world’s second-largest source of climate pollution, America has a responsibility to act. The stakes are enormous — our planet, our children, our future. That’s true not just here in America, but all over the world. No one is immune.
That’s why, when I ran for this office, I promised I’d work with anyone — across the aisle or on the other side of the planet — to combat this threat. It’s why we brought together scientists, entrepreneurs, businesses, and religious organizations to tackle this challenge together. It’s why we set the first-ever national fuel efficiency standards for trucks and set new standards for cars. It’s why we made the biggest investment in clean energy in U.S. history. It’s why we put forward a plan to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants. And it’s why in Paris, we rallied countries all over the world to establish a long-term framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions — the first time so many countries had committed to ambitious, nationally determined climate targets.
Now, we’re building on that momentum. When all is said and done, today will be the largest one-day signing event in the history of the UN.
That’s what this is all about. And that’s why today, America is leading the fight against climate change.
President Barack Obama
The idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land. April 22, falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, was selected as the date.
On April 22,1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.
Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. “It was a gamble,” Gaylord recalled, “but it worked.”
As 1990 approached, a group of environmental leaders asked Denis Hayes to organize another big campaign. This time, Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage. Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It also prompted President Bill Clinton to award Senator Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995)—the highest honor given to civilians in the United States—for his role as Earth Day founder.
On April 22, 2012, the 43rd Earth Day will be celebrated. On the same day, Vladimir Lenin will celebrating (posthumously, of course) his 142nd birthday, meaning he was born exactly 100 years prior to the first Earth Day. As far as I can tell, this is a coincidence. But some people aren’t so sure. Indeed, some people fear that climate change is a hoax fabricated — or at least exaggerated — by researchers in support of a subversive ploy to impose an oppressive global government.