What started on April 22, 1970, as a demonstration by millions of Americans to raise awareness for environmental issues has grown into a worldwide celebration that over 200 countries and 1 billion people participate in. The first Earth Day helped bring together environmental groups launching the modern environmental movement and helped lead to historic environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Since then it has developed into an annual reminder of the importance of maintaining a healthy, sustainable environment. On this year’s Earth Day, as people across the globe take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to participate in the festivities, world leaders will be gathering at the United Nations headquarters in New York for a historic event, the signature of an international agreement to tackle global warming.

Leaders from over 170* countries, including at least 40 heads of state, will sign the Paris Climate Agreement making this the largest one-day signing of an international agreement in history according to the United Nations. By signing, governments promise to lower their carbon emissions and aim to limit the warming of global temperatures to significantly below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The agreement, which was unanimously agreed to by 195 nations at last year’s climate conference in Paris, will take effect if it is ratified by at least 55 nations representing 55 percent of global emissions. According to Eliza Northrop, an analyst at the World Resources Institute, “It’s likely it could come into effect in 2017. It could even happen this year.” With the United States and China, the world’s biggest emitters, leading the push to bring the Paris Climate Agreement into force, this year’s Earth Day could mark the start of a significant cutback in greenhouse emissions globally.

Overwhelming support for ratification of the agreement has come from scientists, politicians, activists, religious leaders, and others in the prelude to Earth Day. On Monday, April 18, the Interfaith Statement on Climate Change was presented with signatures from over 250 religious leaders and 3,600 individuals of varying faiths. The statement calls for the immediate reduction in carbon emissions, a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, and financing to help developing nations combat the effects of climate change. Reverend Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of Greenfaith, commented in an interview, “The time for action is not five years from. It’s not 10 years from now. It’s now. I think that is our request and our deep desire, more than anything else, is that our leaders lead.”

The reverend’s sentiments are shared by a vast majority of scientists worried about the recent rise of global temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that March was the 11th consecutive month to set a record for temperatures since data started being collected by agencies in the 1800s. The high temperatures have been connected to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet over a month early and the coral bleaching of over 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. Meeting the commitments made for the Paris agreement will demonstrate that governments are making an effort to address climate change concerns.

As people celebrate at fairs and expositions, learning about how environmental issues affect their lives, world leaders will make a momentous commitment to protecting the environment for future generations. Earth Day 2016 could go down as one of the most historic in the collective movement for environmental issues started 46 years ago.

*[Update: 175 of the 197 countries that are part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change signed the Paris agreement on April 22].


Author: Ethan Anabel