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Earth Day: Humanity proves it can clean up messes, repair damage

Apr 22, 2022, 5:20 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 3:35 pm
An overlook of the Colorado River from Dead Horse Point State Park in eastern Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV)
(Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV)

As bad as the environment seems with climate change and other pollution, scientists say humanity has also done a pretty good job of cleaning up past messes. More than 25 experts shared their favorite ecological success stories for Earth Day.

The overwhelming No. 1 success story is the healing of Earth’s ozone hole. Experts credit a 1987 agreement and ban on certain chemicals for preventing 2 million people from getting skin cancer. Scientists also tout cleaner air and water in industrialized nations and saving of many endangered species. Experts say key to these successes is political factions and different countries coming together to work on a common threat.

With climate change, plastic pollution and a potential sixth mass extinction, humanity has made some incredible messes in the world.
But when people, political factions and nations have pulled together, they have also cleaned up some of those human-caused environmental problems, including healing the ozone hole, clearing perpetually smoggy air and saving many species from the brink of extinction.

“We can be good at cleaning up our messes, it’s whether or not we choose to be and what we prioritize,” said Michigan State University environmental sustainability researcher Sheril Kirshenbaum.

For Earth Day, The Associated Press asked more than 25 environmental scientists and policy experts, including two former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chiefs and the current director of the United Nations Environment Programme, to share their top stories about environmental problems that the world fixed.

Mountains in or near Fiordland National Park on New Zealand's South Island (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - Provo Canyon, Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) Earth Day Lake Wakatipu, and the Remarkables mountain range on New Zealand's South Island. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) A view of New Zealand's South Island (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - A rainbow and rock formation in Arches National Park (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - A rock formation in Arches National Park in the Devil's Garden area (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) Aspen trees near Alta Ski Resort in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - Autumn leaves in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) Lake Wakatipu on New Zealand's South Island (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) Flowers at Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - Utah's Great Salt Lake (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - The world famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) An overlook of the Colorado River from Dead Horse Point State Park in eastern Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - A clump of aspen trees in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - The less famous side of Timpanogos Mountain with autumn leaves from American Fork Canyon (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE The views from Frey Peak in Antelope Island State Park in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV) FILE - Mountains on the South Island of New Zealand (Larry D. Curtis, KSL) Bear Ridge above Scofield Reservoir (Jennie DeFriez) The Green River from Flaming Gorge Dam (Jenni DeFriez) The Green River from Flaming Gorge Dam (Jennie DeFriez)  The San Rafael Swell, Emery County (Jennie DeFriez) The San Rafael Swell, Emery County (Jennie DeFriez) Utah's landscapes are attractive locations for film makers. (KSL TV) FILE: Double Arch in Arches National Park
(Arches NP/NPS) FILE - Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Getty Images) Photo: Arches National Park FILE: A helicopter from U.S. Air and Marine Operations (AMO), searches for undocumented immigrants illegally crossing the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border near Mission, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) The "cathedrals" of Cathedral Valley are formed from eroded Entrada Sandstone, the same sandstone layer of the arches in Arches National Park. (Credit: NPS/Damian Popovic) Delicate Arch in Arches National Park attracts crowds, even in cold. (Larry D. Curtis/KSL TV) Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. (Larry D. Curtis) Two peregrine falcons fly in Zion Canyon. (Used by permission, James McGrew) Angels Landing in Zion National Park (Used by permission, Zion National Park) Zion National Park is Utah's 24th certified dark sky place. (Avery Sloss/NPS) The Milky Way's galactic core is seen above Zion National Park. (Avery Sloss/NPS) The Milky Way's galactic core is seen above Zion National Park. (Avery Sloss/NPS) The morning sun lights up large rock formations in Zion National Park on May 15, 2020 in Springdale, Utah. Zion National Park had a limited reopening Wednesday as part of its reopening plan after it was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) FILE: Zion National Park (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) Female condor 409 (wing tag 9) perches on Zion's high canyon walls. (Photo: Zion National Park) FILE PHOTO - A stormy sunset over The Watchman in Zion National Park on 8/29/12. NPS Photo/Sarah Stio Zion National Park Two condors in Zion National Park appear to be caring for a chick. (Sidney Burleson, National Parks Service) FILE: Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) Photo: Getty Images A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky left of the hoodoo named Thor's Hammer early on August 13, 2016 in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) File photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Photo: Adone Stock FILE: The sun sets over Canyonlands National Park. (Ken Fall) Photo: Getty Images Screech Owl at the Ogden Nature Center (Photo: Derek Petersen, KSL TV) It's that time of year again when Mother Nature plays a magic trick at Yosemite National Park and makes it look like lava is flowing off a cliff. (@magicphoto/Instagram) A giant tortoise walks through undergrowth in the highlands of Santa Cruz island on January 18, 2019 in Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Lumix) Saharan dust plume, seen by the NOAA-20 satellite on June 17, 2020. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Plastics and other debris line an estuary in Kentucky. ATLANTIC OCEAN - SEPTEMBER 1:  In this NOAA GOES-East satellite handout image, Hurricane Dorian, now a Cat. 5 storm, tracks towards the Florida coast taken at 13:20Z September 1, 2019 in the Atlantic Ocean. A hurricane warning is in effect for much of the northwestern Bahamas as it gets hit with 175 mph winds. According to the National Hurricane Center Dorian is predicted to hit the U.S. as a Category 4 storm. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images) Satellite imagery of Utah Lake taken August 2020. (Nearmap) Photo: Adobe Stock Photo: Getty Images FILE (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) (Division of Wildlife Resources) A confiscated mount is on dislplay of DWR's Hall of Shame (Used by permission, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) CENTERPORT, NY - AUGUST 10:  An American bald eagle carries a freshly caught fish at Mill Pond on August 10, 2018 in Centerport, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) A Utah mule deer, protected and managed in wildlife management areas. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) Mule deer in winter (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) FILE: An image of bucks eating grass on a mountain in Utah captured from a trail camera in August 2021. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is proposing a ban on using trail camera information during the big game hunting season. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) Baby goslings (Used by permission, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) FILE: Keeping your campsite clean and not leaving food out are two keys to staying safe in black bear country. (Utah Department of Wildlife Resources) Utah DWR biologists rescued a litter of cougar kittens in the Uintas before the winter weather could hit. (Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) DWR officials tranquilized and relocated a 2-year-old male black bear after it caused traffic issues before climbing a tree in Orem on Sept. 18, 2019 (Photo: Division of Wildlife Resources) DWR officials tranquilized and relocated a 2-year-old male black bear after it caused traffic issues before climbing a tree in Orem on Sept. 18, 2019 (Photo: Division of Wildlife Resources) Bull bison in the final stages of spring shedding.
(NPS / Jacob W. Frank) FILE: Bison roaming. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images) Photo: Getty Images The Green River (Jennie DeFriez) (Photo courtesy of Callie Chinen) Tuesday’s avalanche on Kessler Peak in Big Cottonwood Canyon. (Nick Pearson/Utah Avalanche Center) Utah deer snow The Colorado River winds its way along the West Rim of the Grand Canyon in the Hualapai Indian Reservation on January 10, 2019 near Peach Springs, Arizona. The Grand Canyon National Park is preparing to celebrate its centennial in February.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“There are some amazing success stories,” said Stanford University environmental scientist Rob Jackson. “It’s easy for us to get tunnel vision with everything going wrong, and there is a lot that needs to change quickly. But it’s wonderful to remind ourselves that other people in the past have succeeded and that society has succeeded too, both nationally here in the U.S. and also internationally.”

Here are the four successes mentioned most often and a key aspect that so many ecological wins have in common.

HEALING THE OZONE HOLE

Fixing ozone depletion was by far the top choice of scientists, officials and environmental policy experts.

“It was a moment where countries that usually compete with each other grasped the collective threat and decided to implement a solution,” former EPA chief Carol Browner said in an email.

Scientists in the 1970s had discovered that a certain class of chemicals, often used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration, was eating away the protective ozone layer in Earth’s atmosphere that shields the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation linked to skin cancer.

The ozone layer was thinning everywhere, creating a hole over Antarctica, which not only threatened increased skin cancer cases, but cataracts and widespread changes to ecosystems around the globe, said University of North Carolina atmospheric scientist Jason West.

“It’s the first time we created a planet-killing problem and then we turned around and solved it,” Stanford’s Jackson said.

In 1987, the countries of the world signed the Montreal Protocol, a first of its kind treaty that banned the ozone-munching chemicals. At this point every nation in the world has adopted the treaty, 99% of the ozone-depleting chemicals have been phased out, “saving 2 million people every year from skin cancer,” United Nations Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen said in an email.

The ozone hole over Antarctica worsened for a couple decades, but over the last several years it has slowly started to heal in fits and spurts. The United Nations Environment Programme projects that the ozone ” will heal completely by the 2030s.”

While activists point to the Montreal Protocol as a hope and example for the fight against climate change, it’s not quite the same. In the case of the banned ozone-sapping chemicals the corporations that manufactured them also made their replacements. But with climate change “it’s more of an existential threat to the oil and gas companies,” Jackson said.

CLEANER AIR AND WATER

In the United States and much of the industrialized world, the air is much cleaner and clearer than it was 50 or 60 years ago when major cities like Los Angeles were choked with smog and even more dangerous microscopic particles in the air. And lakes and rivers were dumping grounds, especially around Ohio, Michigan and Canada.

“We would go to Lake Erie when I was young… and play on the beach and there would be dead fish everywhere. We would have dead fish fights,” Stanford’s Jackson said.

In the United States the Clean Air Act of 1970 and its follow up in 1990 with EPA regulations “effectively cleaned our air,” UNC’s West said. A similar law passed in the 1972 for water.

“This has led to fewer health conditions such as cancer and asthma, for example, and saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars in health care costs,” Syracuse University environmental sciences professor Sam Tuttle said. “That means healthier people, more productive fisheries and a healthier and more attractive environment for all of us to enjoy.”

Tight restrictions on tiny particles alone decreased annual U.S. air pollution deaths “from about 95,000 in 1990 to 48,000 in 2019,” West said.

In Los Angeles in 1955, smog levels peaked at 680 parts per billion. In the last couple years they hit 185 parts per billion but are usually much smaller.

It’s not just air outside. Former EPA chief William K. Reilly and University of Maryland environmental health scientist Sacoby Wilson said restricting indoor smoking had huge public health effects.

On the water, Brown University environmental scientist J. Timmons Roberts also grew up on Lake Erie and stopped going to the water because of the dead fish: “Regulations and cooperation between the U.S. and Canada really made the difference and now there’s genuine eco-tourism there and thousands of walleye and other fishers come out every summer.”

SOLAR AND WIND POWER

The steep fall in price of solar and wind power, which do not produce heat-trapping gases, has surprised experts and given them hope that the world can wean itself from coal, oil and natural gas that are causing global warming.

From 2010 to 2020, the price of residential solar power dropped 64% and the price of large-scale utility solar power generation dropped 82%, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Solar “is becoming a dominant energy technology and it’s becoming cheaper,” Jackson said. “It is cheaper than almost all other forms of electricity generation.”

Few people thought solar and wind prices would drop so quickly just ten years ago, Jackson, Kirshenbaum and others said.

Experts credit renewable power subsidies to pull the world out of the 2008 Great Recession, especially in Germany and the United States.

ENDANGERED SPECIES

The bald eagle, American alligator, peregrine falcon, Canada geese and humpback whales are each environmental success stories.

All were once on the brink of extinction, put on the endangered species list for protection. Now they are all of the protected list and in some cases they are so abundant that people consider them a nuisance or they cause problems for other species.

“Conservation efforts are clawing some endangered species back from the brink,” Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm said. “We are learning to do this thing called conservation.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken 96 species off the endangered species list, 65 of them because they have recovered.

Experts credit regulations and laws across the world with restricting the killing and trading of endangered species and preventing destruction of crucial habitat for those critters and plants.
Another key change was the ban on the pesticide DDT, which reverberated through the food chain, causing thinning eggs for eagles, peregrine falcons and other birds of prey, Cornell University environmental biology professor Robert Howarth said.

COOPERATION

In the United States, many of these key successes were spurred by laws and actions taken by Republican administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.


“All these major milestones, including the creation of the EPA, were bipartisan, but unfortunately today we can’t seem to get that stuff done,” said Christie Todd Whitman, who was an EPA chief during a Republican presidency. “Sadly, Republicans don’t seem to care about these issues anymore — everything is so hyper partisan now that (the) GOP seem to be Neanderthals on the environment.”

Often when a Republican is president, the rest of the country moves left and becomes more friendly to environmental action, whereas they move right and become more environmentally complacent during Democratic administrations, said Kirshenbaum, a former congressional staffer and director of Science Debate. What’s important is cooperation and buy-in to big issues from all sides, experts said.

The treaty to heal the ozone hole is the example for what working together can accomplish, Syracuse’s Tuttle said: “This agreement proved that the international community could come together to create an enforceable framework to tackle an environmental problem of global significance.”
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Follow AP’s climate coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/climate
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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears
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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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