Earth Day Turns 50

Welcome to the Climate Fwd: newsletter! This week, we continue The Greenhouse, our digital event series on climate change. Join us for a live video call on Friday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern with Times climate journalist John Schwartz as he speaks with Denis Hayes, the co-founder of Earth Day, and young climate leaders to talk about what’s better and what’s worse 50 years after the first Earth Day. You can RSVP here. If you missed our call last week on the power of using visuals to better understand climate change, you can watch it here.

It’s Earth Day again, and this one is both special and a bit strange. Special because this is the 50th anniversary of the original, and there are a gazillion commemorations and events going on around the world. Strange because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced most of them to move online.

I’m old enough to remember that first Earth Day, when the internet as we know it didn’t exist. (I am also old enough to take advantage of the “senior shopping” hour at the grocery store, but we don’t need to go into that right now.) On that day in 1970, my dad, a Texas state senator and one of the legislature’s environmentalists, spoke at an evening “teach-in” at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. I don’t think I attended; it was a school night. I was in 8th Grade.

But I remember the time. I recall running in the cooling mist behind trucks spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes. I remember rubbing turpentine on my feet after coming home from the beach to remove stains from the tar balls created by spills and natural seeps.

A lot has changed since then. DDT is banned. Oil spills are more rare, though they tend to be bigger. And we have other problems that few could have imagined five decades ago.

So, my colleague Brad Plumer and I got together for a sweeping look at the changes since that first Earth Day: what’s gotten better and what’s gotten worse.

Our water is cleaner now (rivers don’t catch fire any more, like the Cuyahoga did more than once in the 1950s and ’60s) but oceans are growing warmer and more acidic. The air we breathe in the United States today is cleaner, too, but much of the rest of the world has a long way to go. We’ve stopped the decline of the bald eagle and many other animals, but the Trump administration is working to roll back the environmental protections that saved them.

Despite the new challenges, though, the 1970 spirit that brought millions of people together in a nationwide demand for a healthier planet has survived. And, the mission has grown to include an urgent call for action on climate change.

If Earth Day weren’t reason enough to read a book about climate change this month, here’s another one: Those with the privilege of good health might also find themselves with a bit of extra downtime.

With that in mind, here’s a list of 21 titles, both fiction and nonfiction (and one for kids) across a variety of genres. Looking for a short and sweet explainer? Try Kerry Emanuel’s “What We Know About Climate Change.” Feeling dystopian? “The Fifth Season” might be up your alley. Only have time for one important book? “The Parable of the Sower” is a classic.

Have a look at and let us know if you have other favorites that we missed!

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