Hope on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

The current pandemic highlights how vulnerable society is to a single perturbation. Climate change threatens multiple simultaneous disruptions. That’s why climate change is often called the greatest challenge of our time.

This April marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We have made remarkable progress on the problems of our parents’ generation, since this day was first created. Two generations ago, our parents and grandparents said “Enough!” to air so dirty it could be seen, and rivers so polluted they caught fire. But climate change now poses an even greater threat.

A stable and predictable climate underpins modern society. Without it, storms, floods, fire, and drought threaten lives and drive food insecurity, worsening health, mass migration, and political instability and conflict.

Philanthropists seeking to make progress on numerous worthy objectives—from human rights to health to poverty to education and so much more—increasingly recognize that we must curb climate change to be able to make progress on any of these issues.

For many, climate change can seem overwhelming and the chance for success hopeless. So, they are often surprised at how optimistic I am. Here’s why:

We have the technologies needed to cut pollution and continue powering modern society—like electric cars, solar panels, batteries, and LED lighting—we just need to deploy them faster. And in many cases, the clean technology is now the cheapest option available. That means it is incumbent industries, outdated policies, and obsolete infrastructure standing in our way, not economics or technology. These are surmountable challenges.

Recognizing this opportunity for both cheaper and cleaner energy, half the states in the nation made progress advancing climate and clean energy policy last year—more progress than any time in recent history.

Energy companies themselves also recognize the economic opportunity. Electricity has been the largest source of climate pollution for the past 100 years. But in just the last year, utilities and states covering more than one-third of U.S. electricity use have committed to reach 100% clean power. Old and dirty coal-fired power plants continue to shut down at a record clip, replaced by cheaper and cleaner sources of electricity. And BP recently became the first major oil company to pledge to reach net-zero emissions.

Financial firms increasingly recognize both the risk in sticking with the status quo and the opportunity in being first movers. Investors with $35 trillion in assets under management are calling on major emitting companies to reduce pollution and disclose their climate risks. BlackRock, a major asset manager, is shifting investments to avoid climate risks. And central banks around the world are beginning to require stress tests to avoid major economic threats from climate change.

At the same time, the chorus of calls for policymakers to act on climate is growing louder. It has been a top electoral issue this primary season. Both progressive and conservative lawmakers are beginning to propose potential solutions, despite the current federal administration’s attempts to cling to industries of the past. Federal stimulus and economic recovery efforts to pull the country out of the current crisis offer an unprecedented opportunity for the nation to emerge with an even more resilient and cleaner energy infrastructure.

All this points to momentum building for significant progress. Rather than deem efforts to curb climate change hopeless, we need to double down to reach the scale and speed necessary.

Philanthropy can help by supporting policy analysis, research, communications, and advocacy to advance climate and clean energy policies, and, when needed, litigation to oppose policies that would stall progress.

Prior generations have risen to similar great challenges and succeeded. We put a man on the moon and eradicated crippling diseases. We electrified the entire U.S.— building the largest interconnected machine in the world—in just one generation. Our entire nation is coming together to protect those vulnerable to COVID-19. We can tackle climate change.

As we think about our parents’ legacy on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s resolve to heed the call from our children and grandchildren. What greater gift could we give them than an opportunity to lead a safe and healthy life?