Zeus: Will humans make it to Earth Day’s 100th anniversary?

Now that we've squandered the first 50 years, industries AND governments must act this coming decade to change investment patterns, argues noted marine conservationist Rick Steiner.

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — Rick Steiner was a young intern opening mail in the Nixon White House when he decided to attend the original Earth Day celebration 50 years ago this month, on April 22, 1970.

Now billed as the birth of the environmental movement, the event that day — developed by then-Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson — drew tens of thousands to The National Mall in Washington D.C. and to college campuses and cities across the country.

"I got to see close up the excitement," said Steiner, who went on to a career as a noted marine conservationist and who just wrote a book, Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril, in time for the half-century anniversary of Earth Day. "There was a lot of optimism that governments would respond. And here we are 50 years later and nothing has happened."

Well, not nothing. But nowhere near enough. As we prepare for the 50th Earth Day in two weeks, one that will be celebrated virtually because of Covid-19, we face a dramatically worsening scenario, Steiner argues. The cleansing effects of locking most of humanity down for a month, including clean skies in Los Angeles and New Delhi and clean waters in Europe, are regrettably temporary.

Vital summits and conferences, such as Cop26 in Glasgow, are being delayed until next year because of the virus. Industries are asking for delays in implementing environmental regulations in places such as California. To be sure, the idea a few weeks ago that the world will simply fire up the engines of the old economy once shelter-in-place orders are lifted now seems far-fetched. So there is still time to push for a green recovery. Especially as evidence mounts that high pollution levels are making people more susceptible to Covid-19.

Steiner said the only true way to meet the urgency of the situation is for governments and industry to work side-by-side. He pointed to a handful of large companies, such as Dutch conglomerate Philips N.V. (PHG), Apple (AAPL), and even Wall Street money manager BlackRock (BLK), as among the business leaders starting to talk the talk. He said movements like Beyond Meat (BYND), and innovations in what is called "smart agriculture" to better use soil and water, are extremely helpful. But without changes in government subsidies, there will not be enough financing to meet climate timetables.

If Steiner is correct, there won't be a 100th anniversary of Earth Day in 2070, as most of humanity will not be able to tolerate where temperature levels will be by just 2050 — 30 years from now. His remedy of government subsidies calls for the world's largest nations to set up emergency funding of $2 trillion a year to help keep levels to the maximum 1.5-degree Celsius temperature increase target called for by the Paris Agreement of 2015. Those numbers aren't doable with new funds, but Steiner argues that just by transferring existing subsidies of industries like fossil fuels and agriculture, that money could be found. For example, he argues we're currently spending $50 billion a year to sustain fisheries that are unsustainable.

It's a tall order, but one that needs a better hearing than it's gotten in the pre-virus days. Without return on investment, though, a lot of the money that could support cleaner strategies, particularly in emerging clean tech companies, won't materialize. Callaway Climate Insights was launched to help find those profitable strategies that might attract that money. Just as investment funds now are in search of Covid-19 plays, such as Zoom Video Communications (ZM), Netflix (NFLX), Amazon (AMZN), or Gilead Sciences (GILD), a cottage industry in climate plays beyond renewable energy will soon become apparent.

Of the few benefits we've seen so far from this worldwide virus scare, the climate benefits have stood out. As well as the sudden ability of governments to help each other and act fast when all seems lost. That's what they're there for.

Steiner, from his office in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was a professor at the University of Alaska, said he takes hope from the rapid government responses to the coronavirus. While not all climbed on board right away, by now more than half of the world's population is on lockdown — something never believed possible before.

"This is pretty darn fast for governments to respond," he said. "Covid-19 shows us the potential dire consequences when governments ignore science."

See Steiner’s book, Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril: Our Last Best Chance to Save Our World on Amazon. 

Why is this column called Zeus? David Callaway explains here.

Photo: Earth Day, Washington DC, 2015. S Pakhrin/Wikimedia.