The Past and the President: A Commitment to International Climate Action

My father’s environmental legacy is grounded in the past, but President Biden’s is being decided now as our future hangs in the balance. Can the President lead international action to reverse the current climate change trends? I am hopeful.

My father, the late U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, would be deeply gratified to see the Biden administration choose his signature achievement, Earth Day, as the launching pad for our nation’s recommitment to international action on climate change, when the U.S. will host a world leaders climate summit on Thursday, April 22.

It’s also a fitting coda to the relationship between President Biden and my dad, dating back to Biden’s election to the Senate, just two years after the first Earth Day helped galvanize collective national action on the environment.

Biden won an upset victory to the U.S. Senate in 1972 at the age of 29.

The next month his wife and infant daughter were killed, and his two sons were badly injured in a car crash. He considered resigning before taking office, but credited my father with urging him to give the job six months. My dad and mom, Carrie Lee, took Biden under their wing in those difficult months, introducing him to their friends from both parties. Biden has said my parents “literally changed my life.”

When I last saw then-Vice President Biden at a 2016 campaign event in Wisconsin, he hugged me, telling me how much my parents did to help him when his life was crumbling. With his robust environmental commitment and leadership, Biden is repaying that debt to my father.

Today, nearly every nation in the world marks Earth Day in some way, so it makes sense that Biden would choose that day to gather global leaders to discuss the biggest environmental challenges we face. Earth Day was successful beyond my father’s wildest dreams — not just because of his dogged leadership but also because of the grassroots response of people demanding clean air and water. We’ll need a similar combination to tackle the environmental challenges we face now.

It might be hard to imagine an era that’s more polarized than today, but the U.S. faced bigger divisions in September 1969, when my dad called for a national teach-in for the environment, which would become the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The Vietnam War and racial inequality were tearing the nation apart, and Americans were reeling from a series of assassinations in the 1960s, including those of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. There were riots in the streets and mass student protests.

And yet, my father was able to spark this grassroots movement that united urban and rural, black and white, young and old.

Biden and my dad shared a commitment to working with both parties for lasting action. My father chose a Republican congressman, Pete McCloskey of California, to cosponsor the first Earth Day, and in the following years, worked with senators from both parties to pass landmark environmental legislation.

Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I wanted to remind people of some of the elements that made the first one so successful — multigenerational and bipartisan, with a strong commitment to social justice. So the Outrider Foundation produced a short film, When the Earth Moves, as a rallying cry for bipartisan action on the environment.

I recruited Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash and RepublicEN founder and former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis for the film. Varshini and Bob, from opposite ends of the political spectrum and different generations, helped frame Earth Day as an example of the power to build bridges to create collective action.

It’s crucial that we build those bridges. I know many are cynical about that, but of course, it’s doable. Remember, 1970 wasn’t a cakewalk when it came to national unity, and yet Americans were able to come together for the environment. Twenty million Americans participated, along with 2,000 colleges and 10,000 elementary and high schools. Congress adjourned for the day so people could give speeches, and a conservative Republican president, Richard Nixon, created the EPA a few months later.

While we have made tremendous progress on the environment in the half-century since then, the world faces an existential crisis in climate change. President Biden is rightly injecting a new sense of urgency and establishing a framework of cooperation to address the threat.

He’s already signed a series of executive orders to combat climate change, such as directing the government to purchase zero-emission vehicles and pausing new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters. And he’s installed a pair of climate heavyweights, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, to important positions in the administration.

Yet there’s no escaping that some action on climate change will require congressional action — and likely Republican support, at least in the Senate. It’s encouraging to see GOP Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska expressing an openness to putting a price on carbon, and perhaps other Republicans in Congress will follow them. They should if they’re paying attention to young Republicans, who by a large margin say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.

As the White House has said, this year’s Earth Day climate summit is essential to setting up the U.N. Climate Conference this November (COP26 in Glasgow) to be “an unqualified success.”

I’ve attended over 10 of these U.N. conferences, leading delegations from The Nature Conservancy and working with delegations from developing nations. I know how important international action is to making progress on the climate crisis. It’s quite remarkable that Earth Day will signify the return of the U.S. to its rightful leadership position on the environment.

To convene at the White House, and to pick Earth Day, is symbolically and materially important. For my family and me, this is a tremendous source of pride. My father had many setbacks along the way, struggling to get senators interested in the environment throughout the 1960s before rallying Americans across the country to demand action.

It would delight him to see that something he started so long ago, to shake the Washington establishment out of its lethargy, still playing such an important role these many years later. And he would be moved to see that the heartbroken young man he helped recover from despair is carrying his legacy forward.

A half-century ago, my father said that the battle to restore the balance between humans and their environment “will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes. Are we willing? That’s the unanswered question.”

The same sustained commitment is needed today — and once again, the question of whether we are willing has yet to be answered. But the early indications from President Biden are that the U.S. is up to the task.

Tia Nelson is the climate advisor at the Outrider Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the former director of the Global Climate Change Initiative at The Nature Conservancy and former executive secretary to the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. Follow her on Twitter @tialeenelson.

Conservationst. Rational Thinker. Musical Foodie. Managing Director, Climate at Outrider Foundation. All views my own.

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