On April 22nd 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson brought together 20 million Americans for the first Earth Day ever, a day that will forever be remembered for its influence on the establishment of the EPA and the passing of both the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act in the 70’s.
Though Senator Nelson has since passed away, his legacy is alive and well. What started as a simple mission to push environmental sustainability permanently into the political arena became a movement that continues to motivate and inspire people today, now 50 years later.
But the bipartisan support of climate policy back then is barely recognizable today and there are more questions than answers; we can’t help but wonder what happened after all these years and whether we can ever go back to those days again.
To get an authentic outlook on how Senator Nelson’s legacy lives on today, I spoke with none other than his daughter Tia Nelson, who has unsurprisingly dedicated her entire working life to environmental work and continues to be a strong advocate for bipartisan support of forward-looking climate policy. Needless to say, she works hard to keep her father’s legacy alive.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Lauren Beauban: The first Earth Day caused a wave of bipartisan action, which led to the establishment of the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act in the 70’s. In your experience (both from observing policy and working with people in the field), does conservation still have the same level of bipartisan support today?
Tia Nelson: Congress adjourned that first Earth Day and three quarters of Congress, irrespective of political affiliation, went back to their districts to do something. And a Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The climate science informing public policy was not weaponized in a political way that it is now. I could show you a YouTube video with Sarah Pailin, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative Republicans on video saying over a decade ago that climate change was real and a significant threat to the United States that required a federal policy response. And it’s interesting to reflect on what changed.
Is there any policy that you think made climate a more politically polarizing issue over time?
I’m not a historian, but I think Citizens United contributed to that change in that large sums of dark money from corporate interests who wanted to run disinformation campaigns, not unlike the disinformation campaigns run by the tobacco industry.
What is it going to take for us to move climate policy and get support for it from both sides of the aisle?
At the end of the day we should elect politicians who care about these issues, so the most important thing you can do is vote. Individual action is important in how we conduct our daily lives but at the end of the day, you have to elect the state and federal level politicians who pledge to work to address the issue — and then you hold them accountable. Democracy is only as strong as its participants. And I don’t have the data in front of me, but a lot of people who have the right to vote don’t.
That’s an interesting point because a lot of people feel like the standstill on climate policy requires a big change from a politician’s standpoint. Why do you feel like change is largely dependent on our electorate?
I mean, I think of Rosa Parks who simply said the word no and refused to go to the back of the bus during a time of segregation and changed the trajectory of the civil rights movement or think about Greta Thunberg, a more contemporary example. Could she have known that the simple act of protest and from the Swedish parliament would launch a global youth movement on climate change? No, there’s no way she could have known that any more than my father could have known what Earth Day would become. So individual action matters and we all have the power to make a difference by using our voice and operating from a place of values. And politicians don’t take positions that don’t get them elected.
Aside from the politics, what roles do multimedia companies like the Outrider Foundation, where you’re Managing Director, play in furthering the conversation for forward-looking climate policy?
At the Outrider Foundation, I look for surprising voices, stories, and solutions to give people a sense of agency and make them feel like they can be a part of building a brighter future. Whether it’s the pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers getting involved in living greener or Bob Iglis transitioning from a climate skeptic to where he is today, it’s important that we stop fighting and disparaging each other and instead meet people where they are.
What would you say are the roadblocks that stand in the way of bringing together people across the aisle to tackle climate change?
Well if we look at Bob Inglis’s story, his son was turning voting age and said, ‘Dad, I’m thinking about voting for you, but only if you clean up your act on the environment.’ So he got on the congressional science and technology committee and went to Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef, where he met a scientist. Bob struck up a relationship with him and started to study the science, which changed his perspective. I think a lot of opposition to climate change is a fear of the unknown and what it all means.
What kind of progress would we be satisfied with seeing by the time the next Earth Day comes around?
We’re never going to be ‘satisfied’ and as long as humankind lives on a finite planet, we will be on a journey to live and build a more sustainable society. We’re the only species on the planet that can alter our natural resource base in such significant ways. But the challenge of forging that sustainable future would take decades. It’s not something you’d do in a month or a year or a few years. It’s a long, sustained decadal effort.
How can young people channel their care towards the climate change issue into action?
I understand why youth today are angry and about this issue — I am too. If you’re not a little pissed off, you’re not paying attention. But channel that anger into living your values, getting involved, demanding political leadership, and being sure you’re registered to vote. For instance, in a number of states, people who identify strongly as environmentalists are voting at a lower percentage than their average voters.
Did you enjoy this interview? Check out our other ones here, where we sit down with founders, investors, analysts, and more.