“If candidates are not committed to fighting climate change, the rest of their record is negligible”

Denis Hayes, now CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, was a 25-year-old student at Harvard Kennedy School when he quit studying to lead the coordination of a one-day gathering to raise awareness of environmental threats. Earth Day, as it came to be known, attracted 20 million people from towns and cities across America. Fifth Avenue in New York was closed, Congress shut down as two-thirds of its members spoke at events and thousands of schools and colleges took part.

Its legacy has been monumental, igniting the environmental movement and catalysing pivotal environmental legislation that has endured to this day. The events of 22 April 1970 proved that change didn’t have to come from political leadership, it could come from demands down at the grassroots.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, now the most widely observed secular holiday in the world. It had been planned for two years, promising a scale of crowds that could, it was hoped, have the effect of pushing the climate crisis and its solutions to the forefront of the national consciousness and, according to Hayes, “introduce a new political dimension”. But the onset of Covid-19 pushed everything into the digital space and had a “modest” impact, despite involving “everyone from Pope Francis to rap stars,” Hayes told The Skylark.

For Hayes, if we are to fight the climate crisis, we must feel the same intensity of passion that was felt on the streets on 22 April 1970; it must persuade our voting preferences and dictate our lifestyles. And, he believes, when all that behaviour is aggregated, it can become transformational.

The difference between anything that you do in the computer world versus a million people on the national ballroom in Washington DC, carrying torches and pitchforks, is stark. The mass demonstration has an impact that nothing else can have, as indicated by the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what’s hard about Earth day is that it’s a date, it’s like a holiday. The upside is that teachers and school rooms around the world put it on the calendar and plan for it. But spontaneous demonstrations and passionate outpourings on the streets? That’s hard to do.

The big challenge is getting people to care passionately about what happens in some other part of the world; for the UK to care about a hurricane which devastates the Caribbean or the US to care about Australian bushfires that kill a billion animals. Well, mother nature promises to give us a number of those kind of events in the future. These events tend to be localised but they’re part of a global phenomenon and yet somehow, we haven’t managed to marry that in the public consciousness yet.

There’s clearly a winning side of history

But this assimilation can happen, and in two ways. One is an overnight phenomenon. Who would have guessed that Greta Thunberg would become an international celebrity until it happened? But phenomenon is unpredictable and certainly not organisable.

The much more common thing is that something begins as a belief, with data and research to support it, held by a small number of people that then slowly grows as more people become exposed to it and it insinuates itself into the public consciousness. That’s what’s happening with climate as an issue. Every year a larger percentage of the global population begins to understand these realities. I don’t believe this percentage has shifted the other way; there’s clearly a winning side of history on this issue.

But it is happening at a glacial pace. I gave my first talk on climate change and solar energy in January 1980 and it has been a frustrating forty years, watching this infiltration reach people. But it certainly is growing and it certainly picked up enormous momentum in 2019 as people took to the streets.

A billion of anything gets people’s attention

One of the most challenging things to accomplish is getting people’s attention. There are hundreds of issues fighting to be heard and that need to be solved. But the climate crisis is one that needs to be solved immediately. And this is where rambunctious street demonstrations can come in; the stopping of traffic, causing inconvenience, doing things that are very photographical and capable of hitting the evening news. Once you see a billion animals dying in fires in Australia, once you see one billion of anything, it gets people’s attention. And we’re getting more of these events that will add to the momentum with which public consciousness changes and intensifies.

With democratic countries, this should become a voting issue. Voters should have such a passion that if candidates are not committed to fighting climate change, the rest of their record is negligible. They should be saying: “If you’re wrong on climate, get out of office and put in someone who will act.” But we’re not there yet.

The pendulum effect

In the US, we have a pendulum effect where once any kind of extremism comes into national politics the pendulum tends to swing back in the other direction. Never in the history of the US has the pendulum pulled as wildly over to the radical right as under Donald Trump. This means we have an opportunity in the next administration to push very far in the other direction and because the US Senate has been enabling Trump, I think there’s a good chance we’ll be flipping the Senate as well.

So suddenly you have a Democratic president, who’s not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but a person who is capable of being educated and being somewhat supported at least in this field. And finally, if unlike the last several quasi progressive administrations, the administration doesn’t get bottled up entirely by healthcare and puts climate and the Green New Deal at the forefront, I’d like to think that over the next two or three years, we can be moving in a very progressive direction.

Getting it done

So much also depends upon the attitude of a handful of people at the very top of the pyramid. But a top down authority, if it decides to, has the capacity to move at remarkable speed. And nowhere is this more apparent than a place like China, where there’s not even the pretence of a democratic polity. When they decide to do something, they have had a reasonably impressive track record of getting it done. In 10 years, they have gone from not manufacturing solar at all to manufacturing more than the rest of the world put together by far. The consequence of driving the price down has been dramatic. From starting at $5 kWh (£3.75), solar is now priced in the order of $0.2c kWh (£0.15).  

The most important thing you can change is behaviour

Of course, the planet needs developments such as these; huge political changes, impressive technological innovations with enormously increased efficiencies. But at the same time, among the greatest lessons over the last few thousand years is, if you want people to embrace their overall fate, the most important thing you can change is their own behaviour.

They should be saying, “If you’re wrong on climate get out of office and put in someone who will act.”

When the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989, there was a huge amount of attention generated from it and it helped reinvigorate the environmental movement. Night after night, week after week, the news was filled with coverage of the oil spill. But the EPA did a study of people who changed their own motor oil in their automobiles, who went straight to the nearest storm sewer and poured the old dirty motor oil into it. Their study suggested that per year Americans pour 13 Exxon Valdez’s into storm sewers where it goes into vulnerable ecological areas. So, you take your motor oil and you think jeez that’s nothing, that’s just a couple quarts of oil, big deal. But when you aggregate that individual behaviour it’s massive.

It turns out, in climate, although we’re not going to solve the crisis through a bunch of individual choices by some fraction of the population, playing a role in fighting it does two things.

The fact that I get all my electricity for my house and vehicle from the solar panels on my roof (in the cloudiest city in the continuous 48 states) shows one, I can make a contribution: I’m not producing greenhouse gases through my building and transport. Secondly, it’s telling everybody that encounters me that I’m not a hypocrite. I’m calling for these things on behalf of society and I’m trying to do that in my own life.

The same applies to diet; it applies to buying the most energy efficient appliances, the most energy efficient office equipment, the most energy efficient of everything you can. And when that all gets aggregated up it can be massive. In the process of aggregating it up you are creating a movement and that movement is telling everybody else we’re not hypocrites. Living a life that you are proclaiming and trying to win other people over too is very important.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 9th July 2020

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