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Unfinished Business on Earth Day's 40th Anniversary

While Earth Day’s founders couldn’t have predicted it, acting on climate change has become the country’s great unfinished business.

This post originally appeared on The Washington Post Planet Panel.

Earth Day’s founders launched the modern environmental movement by harnessing the public’s growing frustration with a polluted country and turning that sentiment into constructive action. The groundswell of public support shown on the first Earth Day translated into public pressure on Congress to act and protect our resources.

Congress responded swiftly. Perhaps most importantly, in 1970, President Nixon proposed and Congress later created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Act was enacted in 1963, and revised in 1970 to make it more stringent. The Clean Water Act followed shortly after that. Taken together, these developments made the United States cleaner and healthier and ushered in a new level of national awareness of environmental issues.

While climate change will be a challenge to solve, it also presents opportunities for American innovation. With the right policies in place, the United States could lead the world on clean energy.

Forty years later, some of these environmental challenges remain. We also face a new challenge with an enormous scale: climate change. The period from 2000 through 2009 was the warmest decade on record, and we’re already beginning to see some of the effects of this warming.

While climate change will be a challenge to solve, it also presents opportunities for American innovation. With the right policies in place, the United States could lead the world on clean energy. Without new US policies in place, others like Germany and China will continue to lead the clean energy revolution and the risks of climate change will grow to an unacceptable level.

While Earth Day’s founders couldn’t have predicted it then, acting on climate change has become the country’s great unfinished business. Enacting legislation that will spur clean energy innovation and curb global warming pollution would honor the founders' legacy in 2010. The U.S. House of Representatives got started this summer, and now it is the Senate’s turn.

In the last 40 years, the people calling for environmental reforms have changed. The best policies are those supported by the public and a range of stakeholders. I can’t think of many issues that unite veterans, religious groups, businesses and labor unions, yet climate and energy legislation is one of them.

As we observe Earth Day this week, I hope senators will remember that today, as 40 years ago, people counted on them to make the right choices for America.


WRI has many resources on U.S. Climate Legislation, including fact sheets and bill summaries. Learn more about WRI's work on Federal Climate Policy.

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