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Earth Day 2006: Climate Change Tops the Agenda

Three and a half decades after the first rally for the planet, the annual Earth Day celebrations are bigger than ever. But, say organizers of Earth Day 2006, so are the environmental challenges.

The first Earth Day - April 22, 1970 -- is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. It was a day of peaceful, mass demonstrations by millions of people across the United States calling on the government to adopt policies to clean up and protect the environment.

U.S. government officials responded: Congress enacted laws to clean the air and protect drinking water, wildlife habitats, and the ocean. Congress also created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to oversee the nation's progress on the environment.

EPA administrator Stephen Johnson remembers the first event in 1970. " Approximately 20 million people across America celebrated the first Earth Day," he recalls. "It was a day and time when our cities were literally buried under their own smog and polluted rivers caught on fire."

Thirty-five years later, Johnson says, due to the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the nation, indeed, our air is cleaner, our water is pure, and our land is better protected.

Johnson says that the EPA is currently spending most of its seven-and-half billion dollar yearly budget on research and technology to reduce the threat of climate change -- so-called global warming -- which many scientists blame on our industrial emissions of carbon dioxide.

"Climate change is an important issue," he says. "It's an important issue for the president, for the entire [Bush] Administration. As an Administration, we are devoting about five billion dollars worth of resources both to understand the science...and to focus on the technologies that will ultimately address climate change issues. Clean coal technology is very, very important - so we can have both energy security and also have a clean and healthy environmental energy supply as well."

Today, Earth Day is an international observance, and its concerns are global as well. Climate change is a major focus of Earth Day activities this year -- according to Kathleen Rogers, the president of the Earth Day Network. The grassroots environmental group is coordinating many of the global events -- and, says Rogers, is sounding the alarm.

"Almost all of the developing world stands to lose as a result of climate change," she says emphatically. "Everything. Only the richest countries will survive this disaster. Even the United States will have problems. But the economies of these [poorer] countries are just not going to be able to expand and develop because they'll have energy needs that will not be met. They'll have economic woes as a result of the shrinking market place around climate change. In agricultural countries, because of climate change, they will see both shrinking -- and destroyed, in some cases - domestic markets to feed their own people. But, in addition, they will not be able to participate in the international marketplace."

Rogers says education is a major component of the Earth Day activities her group is coordinating in many parts of the world. In the western African country of Togo, for example, she says, "We're doing training for environmental journalists on climate change. We're doing a training workshop for about 700 teachers about climate change. We're doing radio programs in six different areas of Togo. The focus of 90 percent of this is on creating expertise among the citizenship and journalists on climate change. Our focus is on citizen participation, building a better infrastructure for dealing with climate change, and heading towards a fully informed democratic system for public participation around the environment."

Rogers believes that informed citizens in Togo and other countries will be better able to pressure their governments to adopt environmentally sound policies. "We focus on environmental protection and building free citizens, citizens who have control of their communities and of their governments' agenda," she says. "We've been able to go to countries, either working democracies or aspiring democracies and get environmental protection to be front-and-center as we build active and civically-minded people."

Rogers is confident the magnitude of this year's worldwide Earth Day observances will send a timely message to government officials about the need for environmental policies to put the brakes on climate change. "How many people are going to go out and do something? I'm not kidding: I think it's over a billion people!" she says. "But there's certainly more than that -- [for example,] finding out about Earth Day and being educated about Earth Day and the issues. At least two-and-a-half billion people! Think about that. It's the biggest secular event in the world by a long shot."

Kathleen Rogers of the Earth Day Network says the tone of this year's Earth Day is different from any other she's been involved in. She says that for many participants, it's not going to be a festive event because they believe the Earth -- and its inhabitants -- are in serious trouble. People, she says, are very serious about climate change… about civic engagement… very serious about Earth Day.