Top goal of Earth Day activities: get energy bill passed

The first Earth Day 40 years ago began a period of major environmental reforms. Activists today hope Earth Day activities will spur Congress to pass an energy bill that combats global warming.

Cliff Owen/AP
Workers construct a speaker and light tower on the Mall in Washington Thursday in preparation for Earth Day activities – a rally and concert – Sunday. They will press Congress to pass its energy bill to counter global warming.

Forty years after Earth Day began, activist groups putting together speeches and rallies hope that this Earth Day will once again be a starting line for profound environmental change.

Forty years ago, Earth Day activities marked the beginning of a period of seminal environmental reforms, including the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Endangered Species Act, and the setting of fuel-economy standards for all cars in the US.

Today, the goal of activists is to press Congress to pass an energy bill intended to mitigate global warming. While many local communities are taking a "Think Globally, Act Locally" approach to the day – focusing on local issues – Earth Day in Washington will be the first day of a pro-energy bill blitz.

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“The 40th [anniversary] could not come at a better time,” says Nate Byer of the national Earth Day Network. “We desperately need to act, and we have a galvanized community ready to show up and be loud.”

Ramping up the pressure

The Earth Day Network is co-sponsoring a rally Sunday on the Washington Mall. They hope to attract have tens of thousands of supporters. “Together we can unite our voices and ‘change the climate’ in Washington to pass ambitious and comprehensive climate legislation in 2010," a letter states.

The House passed an energy bill last year to curb the pollutants and heat-trapping gasses that most scientists say cause climate change. But the Senate has been slow to write its own legislation. The focus on health-care reform was one delay, as was the Democrats' loss of their filibuster-proof Senate majority. Senate legislation, however, could be introduced next week.

“Legislation has been treading water for a long time, barely keeping its head above water,” says Mr. Byer. “We need to rescue it and finish the job.”

Byer says the success of Earth Day 2010 will be measured by how much force they put behind climate legislation in Congress. “We want a strong bill that advances a green economy and proves we’re serious about climate change.”

Other environmental activists agree. “2010 is a timely reminder that 40 years ago people stood up and said, ‘Time to protect the Earth,' " says Josh Dorner of the Sierra Club. " Now we need to do it again… We’ve made progress protecting our land, our water, our animals, but now we must address the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced.”

A brand new Earth Day

One in 10 Americans participated in the first national Earth Day. Some suggest that cynicism about Washington has changed Earth Day over the past 40 years.

“In 1970 people put their faith in federal legislation, but now they aren’t" doing that, he says. "People are focusing on what they can do in their local communities, like retrofits."

Still, major cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Orlando, and San Francisco will hold rallies today. And Byer says interest in Earth Day this year is greater than anyone in his organization can remember.

He hopes the interest will translate into real political action, starting with a strong showing at Sunday’s rally, adding: “This year, Earth Day is not about celebration, it is about action.”

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