Photo by Dan Barth


Wisconsin and Earth Day go back a long way together. Truth be told, without Wisconsin, Earth Day might not even exist. Horrified by a disastrous oil spill off the coast of California in 1969, our own Senator Gaylord Nelson conceived and set in motion the gears that made Earth Day 1970 a phenomenon to be reckoned with.


Twenty million Americans marched proudly in their streets and parks that first year to protest the piecemeal destruction of the beautiful, life-nurturing planet we had so recently seen from space for the very first time.


We could finally see how finite Earth was, floating in the emptiness of space. We also saw how small and fragile it was. We knew without a doubt how much our lives depended on it. We also understood we needed to protect this little life boat of ours drifting in the dark vacuum between the stars.


Thank that first Earth Day for the EPA, the Clean Air Act, Water Quality Act and Endangered Species Act. It was a pretty heady time for the “tree huggers” of the early ‘70s. But times change. Inside today’s angry and divided political climate these policies, even the EPA itself, are being gutted day after day and turned inside out in the name of industrial profits.


Good people of every political stripe post pictures of beautiful sunrises, elegant photos of meandering rivers and the glorious palette of autumn forest colors. Yet those on one side deride today’s environmentalists. The very idea of protecting those precious woods, those crystal-clear waters, the miraculous creatures we share this planet with, even the air we breathe and the soil wherein we plant our gardens is now a wedge driven between us.


The unhinging of Earth’s climate, a manifestly global crisis that threatens us today and looms ominously on our children and grandchildren’s horizon, is a joke to many, a Chinese hoax. Some ridicule science and defiantly park in electric car charging stations.


The corona virus straddles that same divide but our response to the global dangers of the virus may point the way to a theme for Earth Day 2020: what the virus teaches us about climate change.


The world’s scientists warned us all, and especially our governments of the impending COVID-19 threat. At first, we, like our top leaders, did not listen. Only the rapid spread of the virus and images of the dead woke us up. Finally, after a long period of denial, our government acted. We did too. As bad as it is, we hope we’ve averted the worst.


Scientists, too, have long warned us and our governments about the even greater threat of climate change—now climate crisis. Unfazed, we have failed to act. Fifty Earth Days later, this April’s celebration may pass completely hidden in the dark shadow cast by the corona virus while the blanket of greenhouse gas emissions heating up our beloved planet continues to thicken.


Unlike the virus, we cannot wait for the worst before we act. The CO2 now in our atmosphere will be with us for hundreds of years growing more dangerous with each day’s emissions. We will not turn this ship around in a few months before it crashes on the rocks.


Earth Day 2020 must be about building that united will to climate action. First in us, to recognize as one of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s students put it in her article “From the Pond to the Streets” (March/ April 2020 Sierra Club magazine): “We are on the precipice. When everything hangs in the balance it matters where I stand. How wonderful to live in a time when everything that I do matters.”


What you and I do matters. From transitioning to renewable energy to driving an electric car—it matters. From eating more vegetables, grains and fruits than meat—it matters. Buying locally-made products matters, growing our own food in our own garden—it matters. So does keeping the plastic out of our shopping carts.


But in particular what matters is our vote and our eagerness to let our politicians know that we expect sane, effective state and federal action on climate change now. We all must protect ourselves and one another in the face of the corona virus. It is even more vital that we act together as a nation to combat climate change.


When conditions allow it, we in Wausau will celebrate Earth Day 2020 together, hand in hand. For now, we can meet safely with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.


By clicking this link you can register for a free on-line Earth Day celebration:


Noted climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe will deliver the keynote address. Dr. Hayhoe is a world-acclaimed climate scientist, an evangelical Christian married to a clergy man. She, better than most anyone, is able to heal the climate rift that divides us.


That is something we desperately need.