On the first Earth Day in April 1970, millions took the streets to demand environmental protection. Nearly half a century later, things may not seem that much better.
About 80% of all our energy still comes from fossil fuels—a figure that hasn’t changed since the first Earth Day. The atmosphere now has more carbon dioxide than any time in the past 800,000 years. The oceans are heating up, corals are dying, and natural disasters keep causing more damage. Oil and gas companies continue to be some of the most valuable in the world, and the warning scientists give about climate catastrophe keeps getting more urgent.
But all signs suggest the scale of the environmental movement has crossed a tipping point. It’s no longer just the woman on the street who seeks environmental justice. Instead, the movement now includes wealthy investors and powerful governments who are standing up for the environment.
In the past year alone, activist shareholders, including trillion-dollar investors like BlackRock and Vanguard, have forced fossil-fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum to reveal the risks to their investments from climate change. In the face of Donald Trump’s retreat from the Paris climate accords, city and state governments have taken on the role of being the stewards of the environment. Just this week, two counties in Colorado have filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy, seeking compensation for the damages caused by wildfires, droughts, and storms on infrastructure, agriculture, and tourism.
There is good news from other corners, too. Government investment and regulations in developing and deploying clean energy have scaled well. In many parts of the world, it is cheaper to build renewable-energy projects than fossil-fuel power plants. This week, the UK went 55 hours without burning coal, which is something that hasn’t happened since before the Industrial Revolution. Portugal produced more renewable energy in March than what the country consumed in the month.
To top it all, poor countries are investing billions more in renewable energy than rich ones. Though Tesla may be suffering another episode of hiccups, forecasters keep revising electric-vehicles sales figures upwards. Even technologies that were considered fanciful, such as carbon capture, are making a comeback. Progress is all around us. We don’t breath the same dirty air or drink the same polluted water that our ancestors did back in the 1960s.
But it’s still not enough. The time is ticking on how fast we can make the transition to a low-carbon world, and that’s why the importance of the protester on Earth Day has never been greater.
This was published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief, our news summary that’s tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, the UK, or the Americas. Sign up for it here.