Earth Day, an event that remarkably just celebrated its 44th anniversary, does everything from raise awareness to inspire action. But it's also an annual moment to stop and consider the fundamental environmental question: How are we doing?
It seems like it shouldn't take much heavy lifting to figure out where things are heading these days. But if you're going to dive into those weeds, you'd better bring a compass.
Last week, for example, I saw that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now consistently above 400 parts per million for the first time in history. (That's not good.) Yet I also learned that more U.S. solar systems were installed in the last 18 months than in the previous 30 years. (That's great!) I read that natural gas wells leak up to 1,000 times more methane than thought. (That's bad.) Then I found out that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell nearly 10% from 2005 to 2012 putting us more than halfway to our 2020 target of a 17% reduction. (That's incredible!)
If it seems like my reading of our state of environmental affairs is climate-centric, you're not imagining things. That's the horse everything else is riding on. So are we winning or losing the race? The short answer is that we're ahead by more than a nose but crossing the finish line is hardly guaranteed.
That's view of the Millennium Project's new State of the Future report. It finds a lot of things getting better. Child mortality is down almost 50% in the last quarter century. Extreme poverty in developing nations has dropped almost 30% since the 80s. Global life expectancy is up 10 years, and in 2013 there was only one war between nations. Say the authors:
"We are winning more than we are losing - but where we are losing is very serious... It is clear that humanity has the ideas and resources to address its global challenges, but it has not yet shown the leadership, policies, and management on the scale necessary to guarantee a better future."
And there's your weather forecast: Partly sunny with a chance of success. The only thing standing between you and a picnic in the park? The will of decision-makers to do the smart thing.
According to the Department of Energy, it should be a no brainer. While bean-counters have historically pointed to renewable energy's price tag as an impossible hurdle, wind power now costs less per kilowatt hour than most electric rates, and the price of solar panels has plummeted 77% since 2008. As economist Paul Krugman said recently in the New York Times, "The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests."
That's where the rest of us come in. It's our job to give that ignorance and prejudice its final kick out the door. How do we do that? By making our voices heard. In calls to our Congress people. In conversations with friends and family. In letters to the local paper and state legislators. In challenges to energy companies and pro-carbon, anti-earth front groups protecting the often environmentally ill-gotten wealth of the few.
There were some good Earth Day events this year. But for my hard-earned money, the best way to celebrate is to be a voice for environmental sanity. If we can all do that, we'll be doing pretty good.