Advancing Policy

Celebrating Earth Day: a Brief History and a Roundup of New Wins for People and the Planet

A look at the Capitol Hill origins of Earth Day (and LCV) in 1970, and the abundance of climate action wins from Washington we’re celebrating today.
Apr 22, 2024
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The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, marked a turning point in U.S. environmentalism. Over the previous decade, several events had swelled a rising tide of eco-consciousness around the country. Biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring warning of the dire ecological and health impacts of pesticides alarmed the public – and Congress. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California and an oil fire on Ohio’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga river garnered national attention and ignited support for environmental regulation.

Conservationists from Capitol Hill Grow a National Environmental Movement

An ardent conservationist serving in Congress, Senator Gaylord Nelson (WI-D), saw an opportunity to launch a movement. Inspired by the anti-war protests and teach-ins sweeping colleges across the country, he established a nonprofit named Environmental Teach-In and hired young activist Denis Hayes to coordinate the program. Hayes built a national staff and soon expanded outreach beyond college campuses to community groups, teachers’ associations, labor unions and other organizations. The nonprofit promoted April 22 as a national day of action, and on the first Earth Day 20 million people – then 10% of the country’s population –  took to the streets to demonstrate for environmental protections against industrial pollution.

Senator Nelson was not the only conservationist on the Hill who saw the right moment to build a movement. Marion Edey, a 25-year-old congressional staffer, had a vision for a national political group for environmentalists. With the support of many environmental leaders of the time, Edey founded the League of Conservation Voters in 1970. In its early years, LCV launched tools such as the National Environmental Scorecard to track how members of Congress voted on key environmental issues, and the “Dirty Dozen” list of candidates with the worst environmental records.

1970 also saw the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Other foundational environmental laws soon followed, including The Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and Superfund in 1980. The young U.S. environmental movement celebrated a series of hard-won victories.

Federal Action to Meet Today’s Climate Challenges

Today on the 54th Earth Day, we seem poised on the brink of another turning point. Despite the UN signing of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit climate change on Earth Day 2016, the climate is fast approaching major tipping points as the world sees more disasters fueled by climate change. But as we highlight in our Good Climate News series, there is also a lot of progress to celebrate around the world — and especially here in the United States.

The U.S. is leading the way on climate progress with the Biden-Harris administration being the most pro-environment, pro-climate, and pro-conservation administration in our country’s history. The Biden-Harris administration has made protecting our communities and our environment a priority from day one. Working with environmental champions in Congress, they passed monumental climate investments. The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act established critical funding for the administration’s Investing in America agenda to revitalize the country’s infrastructure and increase climate resilience while creating good-paying jobs. The Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 introduced historic investments to tackle climate change, transition to clean energy, and protect the health of communities and the environment. More highlights of the climate investments and programs over the past three years include:

  • Committing to climate justice: In his executive order Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad issued during his first week in office, President Biden established the Justice40 initiative. It directs 40% of federal investments in clean energy and transportation, energy efficiency, sustainable housing, workforce development, pollution reduction and more to historically excluded communities. A huge win for climate justice, the initiative ensures the communities that  experience the worst impacts of climate change and pollution and receive the least resources – often majority Black, Latine or Indigenous communities and low-wealth communities – will no longer be left behind.

  • Creating jobs that are good for workers and the environment: President Biden announced the American Climate Corps program in 2023 to provide young people with paid training opportunities to launch good-paying careers in clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience. Today, he’s marking Earth Day by launching the website to apply for the program.

  • Setting conservation records: The Biden-Harris administration launched a $1 billion America the Beautiful Challenge in 2022 to accelerate land, water, and wildlife conservation efforts across the country. They are well on their way to achieving their goal to conserve at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. In the first three years of his term, President Biden has already set conservation records, protecting more than 24 million acres of public land and investing over $18 billion in conservation programs.

And he’s not slowing down in 2024. So far this year, and even just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen a slate of huge wins for people and the planet, including:

Powering up more clean energy across the country

  • Offshore wind power: The Biden-Harris administration has set a goal to deploy 30GW of offshore wind by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes. In the past few weeks, the administration approved the Sunrise Wind project off the coast of Long Island and the New England Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts. These approvals followed close on the heels of the March completion of the South Fork Wind project off the New York coast, and the launch of Vineyard Wind which began delivering electricity to New England’s grid in January.
  • Clean energy in historically excluded communities: Earlier this month the Biden-Harris administration announced awards for the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which will direct $27 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to finance projects that will reduce pollution, tackle the climate crisis, lower energy costs for families, and create good-paying jobs across the country, particularly in communities of low wealth and communities of color. Today, President Biden announced the award of $7 billion under the Solar for All program for low-income solar projects that will bring clean energy to 900,000 households in historically excluded communities.

Accelerating the transition to clean transportation

  • New emissions standards to reduce pollution: The EPA announced new standards in March to reduce harmful emissions from passenger cars and trucks as well as heavy duty trucks such as tractor-trailers, delivery trucks, and school buses. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and these standards will cut billions of tons of emissions that drive climate change and create hazardous smog that causes respiratory illnesses like asthma, especially in communities near highways and other transportation hubs.
  • Charging stations for electric heavy-duty vehicles: To advance adoption of electric trucks and buses, in March the Biden-Harris administration introduced the National Zero-Emission Freight Corridor Strategy to guide development of a national network of charging stations for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Funding for clean school buses: The EPA awarded $965 million to school districts from its Clean School Bus Grants program in January, ensuring more communities will breathe cleaner air by replacing toxic diesel school buses with clean electric models.

Prioritizing the health of our communities with cleaner air and water

  • Pausing approvals of hazardous LNG export projects: The growing number of liquefied methane gas (LNG) export facilities in the U.S. expose surrounding communities – often low-wealth and majority Black, Latine or Indigenous communities – to extremely hazardous pollution. In January, President Biden announced a pause on approval of pending LNG export projects to allow the Energy Department time to evaluate the projects’ health, economic, and environmental impacts.
  • Prioritizing clean water for our communities: On World Water Day in March, the Biden-Harris administration announced new actions to ensure clean water for our communities and protect freshwater resources. This announcement was closely followed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s release of the first-ever national drinking water standards for PFAS to protect 100 million people from these toxic ‘forever chemicals.’
  • Historic action against toxic PFAs pollution: Soon after the new drinking water standards release, the EPA announced it will also list PFAS as hazardous chemicals under the Superfund law, opening up federal resources to clean up PFAS contamination in communities across the country and hold polluters accountable.
  • Slashing toxic air pollution: The EPA released stronger air quality standards for soot pollution in February, a move that will prevent an estimated 4,500 premature deaths from heart and lung disease and other illnesses.To cut emissions of toxic pollution from chemical plants that elevate the risk of cancer and other illnesses in surrounding communities, the EPA released its new Hazardous Organics National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (HON) rule in April.

Protecting public lands and preserving heritage and habitats

  • New protections for 13 million acres in the Arctic: Just last week, the Department of the Interior announced new protections against oil and gas development for 13 million acres in Alaska’s Western Arctic. The new rules will protect significant wildlife habitats as well as the resources and cultural heritage of 60 Alaska Native communities.
  • New conservation rules for the largest manager of U.S. public lands: The Department of the Interior also recently announced a series of rules to strengthen the Bureau of Land Management’s conservation efforts, tighten its regulations on oil and gas development, and promote its responsible development of renewable energy on public lands. The DOI also announced it has permitted nearly 29GW of clean energy projects to date, enough to power 12 million homes.
  • Strengthening the Endangered Species Act: In March the Biden-Harris administration announced new rules to strengthen critical protections for endangered species that the Trump administration gutted. With a track record of bringing more than 100 species of plants and animals back from the brink of extinction over its 50 year history, the ESA is a critical tool to protect vulnerable ecosystems against the impact of climate change and other threats.

Extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress are pushing back on climate progress

All of these wins add up to momentous progress. But whenever there is progress, there is also pushback. Extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress are fighting to roll back the Biden-Harris administration’s historic wins for people and the planet. As just a few recent examples, they are attempting to:

  • Force approvals of massive LNG export infrastructure: Republicans in the House passed a bill in February to undo the LNG export pause, and led an ultimately failed attempt to include a rider ending the pause in the foreign aid bill passed last week.
  • Block cleaner cars rules: The Senate passed a resolution earlier this month undoing the Federal Highway Administration’s final rule setting a national performance management measure for greenhouse gas emissions. Last week, Democrats in the Senate successfully defeated an amendment brought by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) that would have gutted the EPA’s cleaner cars rule.
  • Prioritize Big Polluters over people: During their dirty “energy week” in March, MAGA Republicans passed a slew of bills to reject protections for communities and the planet, and instead protect Big Polluters. Provisions in these bills include rolling back Clean Water Act protections while shielding polluters from liability, rejecting the BLM’s new oil and gas rule, and repealing the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

Keeping up the fight for people and the planet

This Earth Day, while we celebrate all of these wins and more, we’re keeping up the fight to prevent them from being rolled back while pushing forward on new victories.  Celebrate Earth Day and join the fight – get involved today and take action to help protect your community and the planet.

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Thank President Biden and the EPA for Cleaner Cars and Trucks

Tailpipe emissions are the leading cause of climate change in the U.S., and lead to respiratory diseases like asthma. The Biden-Harris administration just finalized stronger rules that protect us from tailpipe emissions while accelerating clean vehicle adoption. Take action to thank President Biden and EPA Administrator Regan for helping to protect the health of families, reduce carbon pollution, and bring us close to 100% new clean vehicles sold by 2035.

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A worker completes a vehicle emissions test.