Call for climate action is an echo of the past


A protester carried a sign during the "People's Climate March" in New York City on Sept. 21. The international day of action on climate change brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets.

photo by CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS ; A protester carried a sign during the “People’s Climate March” in New York City on Sept. 21.

By Doug Struck


The “People’s Climate March” in New York and 150 cities Sunday brought out bulging crowds to demand action from world leaders at the UN Climate Summit, which begins today. The march organizers say the turnout is evidence of the growing passion for their cause.

If the movement keeps expanding, it could be as big as it was 44 years ago.

On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans turned out to celebrate the first Earth Day, demonstrating for action to protect the planet. Those were heady days for the young environmental movement.

So popular was environmental support that even President Richard Nixon, who secretly loathed environmentalists (they wanted to live like “a bunch of damned animals,” his White House tapes caught him saying) climbed on the bandwagon. He signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Politicians then would not dare oppose environmental legislation, and when Nixon finally vetoed the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress promptly overrode his veto by lopsided votes.

Public support for the environment in the United States is a shadow of the sentiment of those days.

Gallup polls showed strong support for giving environmental issues a priority through the 1990s, but that support had plummeted to half by 2011. Despite the growing warning of scientists about the consequences of climate change, generally only about a third of Americans worry much about it, according to a recent Gallup poll.

There are occasional bumps in public concern for environmental issues — often after disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill, Hurricane Katrina, or the BP oil spill. But generally those periods of concern have not lasted long.

In 1990, the original organizer of Earth Day, Denis Hayes, organized a global celebration that was estimated to involve 200 million people. But while other countries continued to ride that surge, the United States now ranks near the bottom globally in public support for action on climate change. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found climate change the top global threat among 39 nations; it was ranked sixth in the United States.

Domestically, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found this spring that only about 3 in 10 potential voters say climate change will be “very important” to their vote in November. The majority of the House of Representatives rejects the opinion of 97 percent of scientific reports that man is a cause of change in the climate.

Once as bipartisan as apple pie, the issue of the environment and climate change has become so fiercely politicized that otherwise smart political leaders are afraid to say they believe in science. The last presidential campaign passed without climate change ever discussed, though scientists warn it will affect far more people and cost more lives than any terrorism threat.

Not even watching a major American city nearly wiped out (by Hurricane Katrina) and another severely battered (by Hurricane Sandy) seems to sway the American public. Announcements, such as the recent finding by the National Climatic Data Center that August 2014 was the warmest since records began in 1880, are greeted by shrugs.

Protesters at last weekend’s march say they are tired of waiting for political leaders to act, and they say the turnout this weekend was evidence that public support for action on climate change issues has begun to boil.

They contend the dramatic growth of solar power in the country, the urgency of many state and local governments to prepare for climate change, and the outcry of concerned citizens — demonstrated at the march — shows that climate change is being taken seriously in many quarters.

But if so, is it too little, too late? As the demonstrators gathered, the World Meteorological Organization released its latest bulletin on the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The increase in 2013 was record-breaking — the largest in three decades.


Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years and reports on environmental matters from Boston. He can be reached at