The Global Spin on Earth Day

By Alice Thomas

For most Americans, Earth Day symbolizes the need to protect the natural environment – specifically clean air, clean water, and pristine rivers and forests. In the years following the first Earth Day in 1970, some of our nation’s most important environmental laws were adopted, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Actors like Meryl Streep also caught the attention of America’s mothers by bringing attention to pesticides in the food that we feed our children every day.

Since then, the environmental protection debate has shifted to encompass global challenges like trans-boundary air pollution, ocean degradation, ozone depletion, and climate change. But by and large, Earth Day remains a forum for conventional environmental actors – ecologists, conservationists, and the like. That must change.

Today’s environmental problems have repercussions way beyond the natural environment, including increased poverty, growing food insecurity, and recurrent humanitarian emergencies. This means that Earth Day can longer be just about preserving trees or rivers; humanitarian, development, and peace and security actors must be take part in the discussion as well.

Evidence is mounting that rapid environmental degradation and increased climate variability are having the worst impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people, especially in the poorest and most conflict-ridden corners of the globe. People in these places are almost entirely dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and they (and their governments) also have extremely weak capacities to respond.

In other words, when there is too much or too little rain, when crops fail or get washed away by flooding, or when clean water sources are contaminated or dry up, people go hungry and are forced to flee their homes. For example, flooding, food insecurity, and drought have driven millions from their homes over the last three years. And the hardest-hit countries have also been some of the most unstable, including Somalia, Pakistan, and Mali.

Protecting the environment is no longer just about trees and polar bears – it is about human security. But unfortunately, our laws and institutions have not kept pace with these emerging threats. Our disaster-response system is woefully overstretched and underfunded, and policies that encourage disaster prevention and resilience have been extremely slow to develop. Despite evidence the every $1 spent on disaster prevention saves $7 in response costs, investments in prevention remain minimal.

Meanwhile, there are numerous legal gaps that limit protection for people displaced by natural disasters and climate change. Perhaps most egregious of all, people who are displaced across borders by flood or drought are not considered “refugees” under the 1951 Refugees Convention and have no right to seek protection or asylum in a foreign country.

Today’s environmental challenges are enormous and multifaceted. They require solutions that are political, legal, and economic – not just ecological. But if we build a new Earth Day coalition that is bigger, stronger, and more diverse than before, we really can have an impact.