Happy Earth Week! To shape a better future, you need to understand the past. So, we picked the 10 biggest moments of the modern climate movement.

Understanding the climate movement today

How we got here

In a matter of 150 years, America jumped from agrarian farmer to factory worker to tech entrepreneur. The Industrial Revolution brought about some of the greatest advancements in human history while also causing severe environmental damage. Some of the world events mentioned below stem directly from the Industrial Revolution. Many natural disasters and world meetings of the 20th century caused pain and tension, but each step back pushed society toward the climate movement we see today.

For decades, our impact on the environment went unrealized. But we now face a looming challenge to counteract economic growth and human potential with the limitations of Earth’s carefully constructed biosphere.

A world beyond COVID

This past year, public health concerns dominated headlines. And environmental issues took a backseat. But pandemic hysteria will fade. From COVID-19, a new era committed to environmental restoration will undoubtedly emerge. It cannot be ignored any longer.

We can’t rewrite the past, but we can learn from it. Let’s contextualize the current climate conversation. These are the 10 biggest moments that defined the modern climate movement.

10 biggest moments for the climate movement

#10: Three Mile Island (1979)

Three Mile Island was the most significant nuclear power plant disaster in US history. The incident marked an inflection point for the global use of nuclear power. Three Mile shut down its operations soon after, and a fast growing nuclear power plant industry saw its first signs of decelerated growth.

The Three Mile Island incident highlighted real risks associated with nuclear power as a global alternative to fossil fuels. At ones point, nuclear energy was looked at as a viable solution for meeting international energy demands without increasing carbon emissions (nuclear is a clean, zero-emission energy source). But few plants are constructed these days, and technology needs improvement. When this disaster struck, it could not be ignored by nuclear energy’s greatest proponents. And activists demanded change.

After Three Mile Island, the world started paying attention to nuclear power plants more than ever, with Chernobyl occurring just a few years later.

#9: Kyoto Protocol (1997)

The Kyoto Protocol marked the first international treaty aimed at controlling and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Emphasis on “aimed at”.

In a historical sense, the treaty did very little to curb carbon emissions. It did, however, boil tensions between developed and developing nations. Competing nations did not want to bear responsibility for reduced carbon emissions. How could you incentivize growing economies to limit output for a long-term, abstract threat?

Meanwhile, poorer nations that depend on wealthier nations for foreign aid, military protection, and trade felt exposed. These wealthier nations contribute higher carbon emissions. And their regions (by coincidence or not) are less vulnerable to climate change risk. Poor nations (rightfully) were reluctant to take the economic blow.

Even today, dividing climate responsibility between nations inhibits serious global cooperation. It also defends my criticism of the Paris accord

#8: James Hansen‘s Testimony (1988)

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the US Senate, declaring that the age of climate change has arrived. Since then, climate emissions have rose nearly 70%.

Many people view Hansen’s 1988 testimony as a tipping point for the popularizing climate politics. At the time, there was no broad-based understanding of climate science, particularly within governmental bodies like the US Congress. Following the testimony, George H.W. Bush discussed the “greenhouse effect” in his presidential campaign. Four years later, the United States became a founding member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

With James Hansen’s historic testimony, the world started taking climate issues a little more seriously.

#7: An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Love it or hate it, An Inconvenient Truth stimulated public dialogue around climate issues. The film was a pivotal moment for driving public interest in environmental activism. It eventually sparked a new generation of climate-concerned contributors and activists.

Parts of the documentary—like Florida going underwater—were exaggerated. It was far from perfect. But other parts were spot on. And the attention it garnered could not be undervalued. An Inconvenient Truth is remembered most for its cultural influence (and filling Al Gore’s wallet).

#6: First UN climate conference (1972)

The UN Summit in 1972 was one the first key international conferences covering environmental issues. The Summit fueled research collaboration and the development of environmental programs in high-impact regions like Europe. Bigger picture, as Summit attendee Jan-Gustav Strandenaes said, the first UN Summit “put environment on the political agenda” around the world.

#5: Montreal Protocol (1987)

The 1987 Montreal Protocol is widely recognized as the most effective international environment-related agreement. Most notably, the treaty banned the use of CFCs. CFCs harm the ozone layer and contribute far more to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

#4: Youth Climate Movement (2018)

Greta Thunberg shook the world when she protested alone in front of the Swedish Parliament In 2018. Like Gore, Greta stirred controversy and notoriety since garnering international attention (some question her authenticity). Regardless, this 18 year-old Swedish activist sparked a fresh global debate about climate issues. Millions of students around the world protested soon after. Her actions defined a new defining moment for the modern climate movement and inspired change.

#3: First Earth Day (1970)

The first Earth Day constituted the largest protest in American history. Earth Day raised awareness of environmental issues to an unprecedented degree. 50 years later, Earth Day serves as an annual reminder about what we accomplished and what we need to do.

#2: COVID-19 Outbreak (2020)

Who knows what the real legacy of the coronavirus pandemic will be. But we do know what it revealed to us about the fragile global economy we built our lives around. The COVID-19 outbreak indelibly reshaped the way we treat city living, entrepreneurship, public governance, health systems, and ultimately climate issues.

Post-COVID-19, society will heighten environmental awareness. This pandemic serves as a serious reminder about the limitations of human health and the necessity of preserving natural ecosystems. Without fresh air, clean water, and healthy vegetation, humanity cannot preserve itself.

#1: Paris Agreement (2015)

The Paris Agreement comes at a critical time. Determining whether international frameworks can serve as a mechanism for deterring carbon emission depends on this treaty. If the Paris agreement fails to achieve its goals, it may be too late to look for international governance as a primary solution.

At Sustainable Review, we believe increased funding and attention to (apolitical) science, research and innovation is the key to achieving carbon neutral, prosperous societies. International treaties are slow, non-binding and inefficient.

The Paris agreement is the biggest moment of the modern climate movement because of its impact on future policy.

The US and China just days ago agreed to cooperate on climate issues. What do you think the legacy of the Paris agreement be?

Those are the 10 biggest moments in the climate movement.

Let us know what you think of our rankings in the comments below!

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