Earth Day at 50: Environmental advocates face new obstacles

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Outrage over the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, an oil spill that killed thousands of seabirds off the California coast and a plunging bald eagle population blamed on pesticides drew millions of people to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Later that year, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee the nation’s response and in ensuing years, passed landmark laws to protect air and water quality, marine mammals and endangered species, and to clean up the nation’s most toxic sites.

Fifty years after the first Earth Day helped spur activism over air and water pollution and disappearing plants and animals, significant improvements are undeniable.

But monumental challenges remain.

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Black, brown and poor communities suffer disproportionately from ongoing contamination because of social and cultural segregation and apartheid lines of demarcation. Deforestation, habitat loss and overfishing have wreaked havoc on global biodiversity. And the existential threat of climate change looms larger than anything that came before.

Urbanization, farming and industry have led to widespread loss of forests and grasslands, exacerbating the dangers of climate change and contributing to an alarmingly swift decline in animal and plant species. Overfishing threatens the ocean food web. Hotter global average temperatures are leading to both heavier rainfall and drought, and are contributing to sea level rise that threatens coastal communities.

And new issues have emerged that weren’t foreseen in 1970, including widespread contamination of waterways and drinking water by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl — industrial chemicals known collectively as PFAS — and plastic pollution that kills and injures marine life.

Meanwhile, black, brown and poor communities affected by ongoing pollution as well as climate change feel left behind as environmental organizations often focus on issues that don’t always resonate with struggling neighborhoods.

Studies show that polluting industry, highways and shipping terminals are more likely to be located in poor and non-white neighborhoods with less political clout, often because historic housing discrimination or poverty forced people of color to live there.

In Charlotte, N.C., blacks ended up living near a major railroad line and industrial areas. Those living near Houston refineries and chemical plants are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. Detroit’s most polluted ZIP code, near an oil refinery, is predominantly black and low-income.

Environmental groups for decades also have struggled to get lawmakers to act on climate change — and to persuade the public to take it seriously.

Early water and air pollution were problems people could see and smell, while climate change until recently had seemed decades away.

Efforts to speak to worldwide climate change began in the 1990s.

As evidenced by last year’s climate protests, a new, diverse generation of activists is demanding action, fueled by fears the worst impacts will happen in their lifetime.

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One of those American millennials working hard to create a new future is James Sternlicht, director of sustainable development for Oceanic Global.

When asked on Tuesday about the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, he told Fox News: “When it comes to addressing the problems facing our country, and our planet, many of the solutions are the same - we need to invest in those solutions which reduce dependency on resources beyond our borders, help people do better where they are, and take responsibility for the things which we can change in the here and now. That means investing in renewable energy which doesn't funnel money to oppressive regimes - that means investing sustainably beyond our borders to help those in need enter their own marketplaces by security at home -- that means taking it upon ourselves to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the living of our daily lives. To live together well on this planet, we need to be self-sustaining and responsible -- and we need to help others get there as well.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.