Environment

The first Earth Day was 50 years ago today, April 22, 1970. Marking the anniversary and celebrating the planet present unique challenges for people around the globe while social distancing in the middle of a pandemic. But some young activists in Kentucky believe they’ve found a way, through technology.

Organizers at Kentucky Youth Climate Strike are calling on their peers to join in a week of digital action to combat Climate Change and the coronavirus.

“I think both crises that we’re seeing, of COVID-19 and the climate crisis, create a unique opportunity for a regained sense of shared humanity, where people realize what matters most,” said Kentucky Youth Climate Strike State Director Fernanda Scharfenberger.

50 Years Of Action

While this Earth Day may feel unique because of this unprecedented pandemic, those who recall the first Earth Day remember that it too came about during a turbulent period in American life. It was the height of the Vietnam war. The nation was divided, then, too.

Just months before the first Earth Day, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire spurring Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act.

“To see photographs of a river on fire is something you don’t forget,” said Sarah Lynn Cunningham, an environmental engineer and educator reflecting on that first Earth Day when she was in the ninth grade.

On the day itself, she remembers crafting a “really cool” silk-screen poster with black-light ink to celebrate.

“At age 14, I genuinely believed that we were going to fix all these problems and by the time I was the 30 I was going to get to open a bike shop next to my friend’s health food restaurant,” Cunningham said.

While history didn’t unfold exactly as she thought it would, Cunningham says the country and the city of Louisville have made great strides in improving the air, water and soil.

When Cunningham was in high school, about half the cities along the Ohio were still dumping their sewage into the river untreated – a problem that persists today in Louisville, but at a fraction of what it once was.

It was in 1972 that the city had its first drop-off recycling center in Louisville and now almost everyone has curbside pickup

And it was back then Cunningham remembers looking out her car window at the yellow cloud of pollution that hung over Louisville on summer days when her family would drive along Interstate 64.

The air too, is a lot cleaner these days, thanks in part to activists and environmentalists in places like West Louisville, where community action contributed to a 73 percent decrease in toxic air pollution.

Still, climate change is the issue that the planet has done the least to address, and it’s the one with the worst impacts, Cunningham said.

“Well I’m 63, and I think I’ll be fighting this fight until the day I die,” Cunningham said.

Going Digital To Fight The Climate Crisis

Gone are the days of puff-paint, protest signs and mass gatherings. Fernanda Scharfenberger, a high school senior, says all of Kentucky Youth Climate Strike’s organizing has gone digital in response to the pandemic.

Their Earth Day plans, for example, came together during hours of Zoom meetings.

“We’ve been challenged to get creative with what we are doing, how we are reaching folks, making sure things remain accessible, even though they’re online,” Scharfenberger said.

Kentucky has seen a one and half to two degree increase in average temperatures over the last 30 years. In the coming decades, climate change will continue to warm the Commonwealth, increasing the frequency of extreme weather including droughts, heavy storms and flooding.

And the threat of climate change is actually significantly worse now than it was in 1970. That’s because half of all the carbon currently in the atmosphere was actually released in the years since Climate Scientist James Hansen delivered his seminal report on the impact of global warming in 1988.

And the impacts of climate change are not distributed evenly. Those who are the most vulnerable, people of color and those people with lower incomes, will face disproportionate impacts. The same can also be said of COVID-19, Scharfenberger pointed out.

“In the midst of this pandemic, we are seeing this downfall in our economy and being able to starkly see who is disproportionately impacted in the same way that climate change is able to show those inequalities,” she said.

Kentucky Youth Climate Strike is participating in a week of action to support local initiatives to help those affected by COVID-19 and push for stronger action on climate change.

On Tuesday, they called on members to donate to community organizations fighting COVID-19. On Earth Day, they’re pushing for a media campaign called #WhyIStrike asking Kentuckians to share their stories about the fight for climate justice.

And on Thursday and Friday, they plan on reaching out to politicians and residents in support of initiatives like the Green New Deal — a science-based plan to cut net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero as fast as possible.

Reflecting on 50 years since the first Earth Day, Scharfenberger says she is striving to recreate the momentum of that first moment.

“It’s about really going back into this moment of building a movement that’s ready to fight relentlessly for what we need and not just what pundits say is politically possible. And I think it’s our generation stepping up in a way that similarly that generation did, on the first Earth Day 50 years ago,” Scharfenberger said.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.