On April 22nd, millions of people in countries all over the world will come together for the 51st annual Earth Day, a global campaign of environmental awareness, education, and action.
Earth Day activities take many different forms – including tree planting, ocean and beach cleanups, trash collection, petitions, movie screenings, classroom lessons, and public demonstrations – all with the goal of improving our planet’s health. With the urgent need to address climate change, Earth Day drives environmental change by uniting individuals, organizations, and politicians in a common goal.
“This Earth Day, we have an important opportunity to challenge world leaders to see climate change for what it is – a pressing global security threat, one that threatens everyone and everything but particularly our most vulnerable people and places.” Kathleen Rogers, President of earthday.org
And whether you’re a regular participant or looking to join in for the first time, here are ten inspiring facts about Earth Day that will help you to make this year’s event the most successful one yet.
1. It Was Inspired by Student Protests About the Vietnam War
Earth Day was founded in 1970 by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, who had long been concerned about America’s deteriorating environmental health. In 1969, Nelson witnessed the devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – the worst in American history at the time – and was encouraged by the rising public awareness about air and water pollution. Inspired by the energy of student Vietnam war protestors, Nelson partnered with college activist Denis Hayes and began a coordinated program of environmental teach-ins across US campuses. After quickly attracting hundreds of volunteers and organizations, Nelson announced the name Earth Day, which immediately caught national media attention and expanded across the entire country.
“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day
After leaving politics in 1980, Nelson went on to become the official counselor for The Wilderness Society. In 1995, Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor awarded to civilians in the US – for his efforts as the founder of the Earth Day movement.
2. The Date Was Specifically Chosen to Mobilize College Students
The date of April 22nd, which falls between spring break and final exams on most campuses, was specifically chosen by Senator Nelson to maximize college student participation. On the first Earth Day, around 1,500 campuses hosted teach-in events, which were typically gatherings of students and community members discussing environmental issues in the local area and working to develop solutions.
The popularity of Earth Day among younger generations also led to the creation of “MobilizeU,” an international college student network that improves campus sustainability, encourages voting, and shares information about critical environmental issues.
3. The First Earth Day Attracted 20 Million Americans
On the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans – around 10% of our entire population at the time – took to streets, parks, and campuses to demonstrate against the growing impacts of industrialization.
“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before.” Denis Hayes, Earth Day organizer
In New York City, Fifth Avenue was closed off to vehicles due to demonstrations, and up to one million people gathered in Central Park for cleanups, demonstrations, and speeches. In Philadelphia, a crowd of 30,000 met in Fairmount Park to hear activists, artists, and politicians speak about pressing issues, following a week of activities promoting environmental activism.
Looking back on the first Earth Day, it’s almost hard to believe so many people joined the movement without access to internet or social media. But thankfully, the country came together to make its collective voice heard, and it will forever be remembered as a critical turning point in our environmental history.
4. Earth Day Led to the Creation of the EPA
In December of 1970, Congress approved a new federal agency to protect and improve the health of America’s air, water, and land, known as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the years following the creation of the EPA, Earth Day was credited with inspiring the public support that led to the signing of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many others.
The agency is now responsible for regulating environmental laws, conducting research, funding new programs and initiatives, and providing educational resources around the country. The EPA employs more than 14,000 people – many of which are scientists, engineers, and environmental specialists – supported by a $9 billion annual budget.
5. The Paris Agreement Was Signed on Earth Day 2016
On Earth Day 2016, 174 nations and the European Union signed a document that would change environmental conservation forever. The Paris Agreement is a legally-binding international treaty that seeks to limit global warming to below 2°C (ideally to 1.5°C) above pre-industrial temperatures. The agreement binds countries to reduce their CO2 emissions via economic, industrial, and social transformation, while drawing from the latest scientific research.
After inspiring decades of awareness and action, it seemed only fitting that world leaders selected Earth Day to sign the historic document. As you may know, the US left the Paris Agreement on November 4th, 2020, but within hours of taking office, new President Joe Biden re-joined the agreement on February 19th this year – reaffirming America’s commitment to long-term climate action.
6. Earth Day Has a Different Theme Every Year
Amidst all of the different activities and events, each Earth Day also raises awareness about a specific topic. The themes from recent years include:
- 2016: “Trees for the earth,” in which the Earth Day Network coordinated global tree planting activities with a goal of 7.8 billion new trees over five years – one for each person on the planet.
- 2017: “Environmental and climate literacy,” which promoted environmental awareness, celebrated writers and authors, and raised education about climate change and global warming.
- 2018: “End plastic pollution,” which aimed to reduce and eliminate single-use plastics, promote fossil-fuel alternatives, and encourage recycling programs.
- 2019: “Protect our species,” which drove education and awareness about endangered species, helped to improve the health of natural ecosystems, and promoted policies that protect vulnerable and iconic species.
- 2020: “Climate action,” the first all-digital Earth Day due to COVID-19, which promoted the benefits of renewable energy, encouraged people to reduce and eliminate fossil-fuels, and promoted new pathways to a net-zero future.
This year’s Earth Day theme is “Restore our earth,” which will involve global cleanup efforts to reduce litter and environmental pollution. One of the initiatives is the newly-coined “Plogging,” in which people are encouraged to collect trash while jogging to improve their fitness while cleaning up popular running routes.
7. Born in the USA, Earth Day Is Now a Global Phenomenon
In 1990, Earth Day officially became an international event, attracting 200 million people across 141 countries and putting environmental conservation on the world stage. In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously voted to make April 22nd “International Mother Earth Day” (the name often used outside of America) and urged more countries to take action. Earth Day now attracts around a billion people and 150,000 partner organizations across 190 countries, making it one of the largest and most influential global movements in human history.
8. President Biden Is Holding an Earth Day Summit in 2021
Shortly after re-joining the Paris Agreement, President Biden also declared he would use Earth Day 2021 to hold a virtual international climate summit. There, Biden will meet with leaders from around the world to discuss climate action, and encourage other nations to follow America’s lead in strengthening carbon-reduction targets. News of the summit also came with the recent agreement between the US and Canada that the two countries will work together to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The official list of Earth Day summit attendees is yet to be announced but is expected to include South Korean President Moon Jae-In and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
9. Earth Day Has Achieved Some Phenomenal Results
April 22nd involves millions of individual people and actions, but it also demonstrates the incredible progress we can achieve when working together:
- In 2012, more than 100,000 people in China rode bicycles for the day to avoid CO2 emissions from their cars and motorbikes.
- In 2011, the Earth Day Network planted 28 million new trees in Afghanistan.
- In Panama, volunteers have planted and maintained 100 endangered species of orchids to prevent their extinction.
- In 2016, earthday.org confirmed it had planted one billion new trees, including 460 million in India, as part of its goal of 7.8 billion by 2020.
Earth Day 2021 will feature The Great Global Cleanup, in which participants can create or join cleanup efforts, share online results, and even contribute to plastic waste research using a designated iOS or Android app.
10. Earth Day Is for Everyone, Everywhere
Since going global in 1990, Earth Day has gone from strength to strength and now unites a billion participants – or one out of every eight people in the world – to take action against climate change.
And no matter who or where you are, you have the power to make a difference. If you’d like to join a registered event in your area, you can search the global Earth Day map. Or, if you want to take action right now, you can read through Earth Day’s 51 ways to help restore the earth or our guide to sustainable living.
Here at terrapass, as a proud supplier of carbon offsets and renewable energy credits (RECs), we’re excited to see so many people come together, and we’re confident Earth Day will only continue to grow every year.
And whether your contribution is picking up trash, reading a book, signing a petition, planting a tree, or educating others about the environment – you’re doing a wonderful thing for the health of our planet.