Earth Day reminds us we’re not on track to solve climate crisis — so we need it more than ever, advocates say

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With record-breaking wildfires, deadly heat waves and severe floods making headlines in the province, along with stories of climate anxiety, tips on how to help save the planet and statistics on carbon emissions gracing our newsfeeds daily, is Earth Day still necessary?

Aren’t we acutely aware of how dire the effects of climate change are?

Some say yes: now, more than ever, is the time to acknowledge our accomplishments in protecting the planet, and push for more to be done. 

“I think we need to take a day every now and then, even if it’s just once a year, to celebrate successes,” said climate advocate and Vancouver physician Melissa Lem.

“We need to stop to think how much this planet and the people who live on it mean to us.”

Earth Day through the years

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was a political movement, and featured rallies and teach-ins at schools across the U.S. by national Earth Day co-ordinator Denis Hayes.

“You have to wonder, as the decades have gone by, what happened to all that energy and political co-operation?” Lem said.

In 1990, Earth Day became a global celebration — CBC archives show that an estimated 200 million people in more than 130 countries participated in Earth Day-related events.

Today, in Canada, some schools hold special events on Earth Day to educate young people about climate change and the ways individuals can reduce their carbon footprint, while many families observe Earth Hour by turning off electricity for an hour to conserve energy.

A ‘useful reminder that we’re not on track’

Last year was declared the sixth hottest year ever on record. Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailed how financially costly climate change is. The UN has also said the world is on track to be “unlivable.”

A helicopter pilot prepares to drop water on a wildfire burning in Lytton, B.C., on Friday, July 2, 2021. Scientists predict billions of dollars in suppression and indirect fire costs if climate change and fire causes are not resolved. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Although the outlook appears to be grim, climate protests led by youth, inspired by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, have become a global phenomenon as younger generations demand climate action, while scientists continue to work around the clock to find solutions to what they’re describing as an impending climate catastrophe. 

“I think the vast majority of Canadians care about climate change deeply, but they tend to be preoccupied by other more immediate issues for their lives, things like the cost of gasoline,” says Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in environmental policy. 

“Earth Day is this useful reminder that we’re not on track. We need to be doing so much better.”

The “we” she refers to doesn’t include just individuals, but the government and industry, too.

Lem says there’s ambivalence toward what the government says it is doing to combat climate change because current climate commitments aren’t enough to prevent the earth from warming.

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Environment and Climate Change Minister George Heyman pictured during a June 2019 news conference in Vancouver. Climate advocates have said the government’s new plan, targeting the oil and gas sector to curb carbon emissions, isn’t enough. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

“You hear the government [is] fighting climate change on one hand, but then handing out billions of dollars for fossil fuel subsidies and approving new projects with the other,” Lem said. “It is confusing.”

“I think we really have to have a discussion about what on earth is an efficient fossil fuel subsidy in the context of a product that works by causing climate change,” Harrison added.

The oil and gas sector was the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the country in 2020, according to Statistics Canada, and although the government’s new plan to curb carbon emissions specifically targets that industry, advocates have said it isn’t enough. 

“We have to look outwards at what our government’s doing, what is industry doing on top of what individual actions we can take,” Lem said. 

“I think it’s a good time to bring everyone into the sphere of thinking about our planet and our health.”

The Early Edition14:03Climate Change Panel Earth Day

Earth Day is this Friday. After 32 years, what impact has this annual event had on climate policy in this country? And can we still balance our climate goals with oil exports? Our climate change panel joins us to discuss. 14:03

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

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