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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Pete McCloskey wants Earth Day to change the world -- again Pete McCloskey wants Earth Day to change the world -- again (April 16, 2003)

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

Earth Day 1970 launched the environmental movement across the country and beyond, by harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of college students.

In 2003, former Congressman Pete McCloskey, co-sponsor of that first Earth Day, sees the need to do it all over again.

"In two years the Bush administration has tried to roll back almost all the environmental advances that were made in the last 33 years," he says in an interview in his Redwood City law office. "I'm almost embarrassed to be a Republican."

Laws protecting air and water quality, endangered species, marine mammals, the Coastal Zone, and others, were largely the result of the campaign launched on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. "Most were enacted in 1970 to 1973," Mr. McCloskey says.

To reignite the environmental movement, Mr. McCloskey and other original Earth Day founders, including former Senator Gaylord Nelson, and former Stanford student body president Denis Hayes, are reconnecting to create an even greater event -- this year in September.

A letter sent March 17 to more than 4,000 student leaders urged them to help rebuild a constituency for the environment. It suggests organizing events in their schools and communities, and sending a delegate to a national student conference on politics and the environment in September.

Despite war, the sour economy, and threats of terrorism, the letter said, "There is no more terrifying legacy than a changed climate or an epidemic of extinction."

The letter was signed by Mr. Nelson. Mr. McCloskey, Mr. Hayes, and Stewart Udall, a former congressman and Department of the Interior secretary.

Mr. McCloskey has been busy enlisting a bipartisan group of 16 Congress members to serve as an advisory committee for the next Earth Day event. They include Senators Russ Feingold, John McCain, Lincoln Chafee, John Kerry, and James Jeffords, as well as 10 members of the House of Representatives from both parties. "They're first-rate people," he says.

The next Earth Day event should gain by experience from the first Earth Day and the many that have followed. In particular, it is being organized through the Earth Day Network ( in Washington, D.C. This is an alliance of 5,000 groups in 184 countries founded by Earth Day pioneer Denis Hayes.

Mr. McCloskey credits Mr. Hayes and Sen. Nelson with making Earth Day happen. He was recruited as a rare, like-minded Republican to co-sponsor the event in the House of Representatives.

More important than the demonstrations, teach-ins and clean-ups joined by 20 million people on the first Earth Day was the political action that followed.

Mr. McCloskey remembers with glee how the student leaders targeted a "Dirty Dozen" of legislators who had bad environmental records and were vulnerable in their home districts. The students campaigned against them, writing letters and walking precincts.

By November 1972, seven of the dozen had been defeated -- two senior Democrats and five Republicans. "That just had an enormous effect," says Mr. McCloskey. "The environment had proved it could deliver votes."

Now the environmental problems are even harder, and the need for political action greater. Not only is the administration is rolling back environmental laws and regulations in a hundred ways, Mr. McCloskey says, huge new challenges have arisen in the last 30 years -- climate change, persistent organic pollutants, oil drilling in fragile environments, and so on.

Since the March 17 letter, "the response has been tremendous," Mr. McCloskey says. "We're trying to wake students out of apathy to take the kind of action that was taken 33 years ago."


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