Earth Day has its origins in an oil disaster. Just over a year before the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, a rig five miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California experienced a massive underwater blowout. Within a day, a huge oil slick covered 75 square miles of ocean. The spill reached the coast a week later and eventually coated 35 miles of shoreline with oil up to six inches thick. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
During the spring and summer of 1969, Santa Barbara residents frantically tried to soak up oil by spreading straw along beaches. The idea for the first Earth Day occurred to a politician – Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin – who visited the scene of hopeless desolation and then began coordinating a nation-wide day of environmental action and awareness-raising. He and his colleagues catalyzed the widespread anger at extreme environmental destruction felt across the nation.
This Earth Day – 52 years later – we know that the environmental destruction wrought by fossil fuels is of a higher order of magnitude than a single oil spill. The combustion of oil, coal and gas drives a global climate breakdown, affecting millions of people around the world. As a result, extreme heat, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and drought are going to become less predictable and more severe.
Governments have long given the fossil fuel industry – one of the main culprits of the global climate breakdown – a free pass. By continuing to support the use of fossil fuels as our main source of energy and by authorizing new oil, gas, and coal production, governments are undermining their obligation under international law to prevent further foreseeable harm caused by the climate crisis.
The challenge for the human rights movement is to respond to the climate crisis with the urgency and scale of work it demands. What’s different this Earth Day? In October 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council formally recognized the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. U.N. resolutions are only words on paper, but these words hold promise. Among governments, the recognition reflects a wider acceptance of the interdependence of human well-being and our environment. For the human rights movement, it strengthens our ability to work on the global environmental breakdown.
The first priority should be people in so-called fence-line communities. If the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is to fulfill its promise, governments need to protect those most immediately and directly affected by fossil fuel production: the people living in and around oil, gas, and coal extraction sites, refineries, power plants, and pipelines.
Oil spills cause long-term harm to countless local communities. Routine gas flaring and venting damages the respiratory health of people living miles away. Air pollution downwind from oil refineries and coal plants results in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths globally. Open-cut coal mining contaminates drinking water for entire communities. Much more can be done to accurately document and demand accountability for this harm.
The second priority is to defend the civic space to protest climate inaction and environmental harm. In many countries – including repressive petro-states largely dependent on revenues from oil and gas exports – human rights organizations can do more to denounce prohibitions on publicly protesting climate policies.
Even in countries unbeholden to the revenues from fossil fuel production, there are increasing moves to restrict freedom of assembly and expression of peaceful climate protesters. Effective climate action is going to require more people peacefully taking to the streets, not fewer.
The third priority is to urgently demand an end to governments authorizing new fossil fuel projects. In 2021, the usually conservative International Energy Agency made a stunning announcement: if governments are serious about the climate crisis, there could be no new investments in oil, gas, and coal from the beginning of 2022.
More than this needs to be done: the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that existing fossil fuel projects are already more than the climate can withstand if we want to limit global warming to a 1.5º Celsius increase and prevent the very worst outcomes of climate breakdown. The IPCC called for “rapid and deep” emissions cuts across all sectors.
But in the few weeks since that major IPCC report was released, over half a dozen new major oil and gas projects have been approved. We need to urgently get to work so that instead of citing the failures to stem climate change, on future Earth Days, we can celebrate progress.