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Earth Day Special: Co-founder Pete McCloskey Explains Political Impact of First Earth Day

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On its 50th anniversary, one of Earth Day’s co-founders tells the fascinating story of how the movement began, the changes it triggered, and why it is still relevant half a century later.

As a young Republican Congressman from California, Pete McCloskey teamed with Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson (WI) and Stanford student body president Denis Hayes to launch the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.

Channeling the activism of anti–Vietnam War movements, the young leaders of the first Earth Day went on to target a “dirty dozen” — 10 Republicans and two Democrats — in Congress, five of whom were defeated in primaries or the November 1970 midterm elections. They were targeted for “a singularly bad record on environmental matters” and for supporting the war.

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In this interview and in his new book, The Story of the First Earth Day: How Grassroots Activism Can Change Our World, McCloskey explains the political shock wave that made environmentalism a potent force. It was a force that led President Richard Nixon, who was hardly a tree-hugger, to approve creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and sign the Endangered Species Act, which McCloskey co-authored. At age 92, McCloskey shares his account of the activism of the 1970s. His hope: that today’s young leaders can generate the political momentum to address climate change in time to halt our perilous trajectory.

Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey Jr. is the author of The Story of the First Earth Day and five other books. He served 15 years in the House, challenged Nixon in the 1972 primaries over the Vietnam war, and was the first elected Republican to call for Nixon’s impeachment. In 2006, he came out of retirement to challenge Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), then chair of the House Resources Committee, who was attempting to scuttle the Endangered Species Act; McCloskey lost in the primary, but Pombo was defeated in the general election. Peter B. Collins served as a media adviser to McCloskey in the 2006 campaign. McCloskey left the GOP in 2007 in protest of the Iraq War and the use of torture during the George W. Bush administration.