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The gay man leading the Earth Day Initiative offers hope for the future

Earth Day Initiative Exec Director John Oppermann Watch What Happens Live Andy Cohen Bravo Show LGBTQ progress pride flag climate change edition
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The worst thing that we can collectively do to ignore climate change is to have an apathetic populace when it comes to voting, says John Oppermann.

Back in 1970, Earth Day emerged as a rallying cry for environmental action. It was a time when pollution choked cities, rivers caught fire, and concerns about the environment were mounting. They were different types of catastrophes than we see today, but all human-made.

At the time, Democratic Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, envisioned a day dedicated to environmental education and activism. On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans took to the streets in what became the largest demonstration in history, demanding action to protect the planet.

The following year, it was Richard Nixon who marked the one-year anniversary of the marches by signing a proclamation Earth Week. Clearly, Nixon wouldn’t be welcomed in today’s Republican party.

Since its inception, Earth Day has grown into a global phenomenon, celebrated in over 190 countries. These global celebrations of Earth Day have been instrumental in driving significant environmental legislation around the world. Here in the U.S., it has helped prod the passing of scores of bills, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. (I know its importance having worked three years for the Noble-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

Over the years, Earth Day has evolved into a day of reflection, action, and advocacy for a sustainable future, reminding us of our interconnectedness with the Earth and the responsibility we bear to protect it for future generations. The executive director of the Earth Day Initiative here in the U.S. is John Oppermann, a gay man, who has been devoting his life to climate change. The organization he leads promotes environmental awareness and solutions through partnerships with schools, community organizations, businesses, and governments.

“My dad cared so much about the environment, so that’s where I got my passion for it,” explained Oppermann. “I really absorbed that appreciation for nature and the environment from him, and then when I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my own career, I got to thinking about how the environment is arguably the thing that affects literally everyone, and how many challenges that presents, so that’s early on I headed in that direction.”

Oppermann went to Georgetown receiving his B.S. in International Politics and Security Studies, and then earned a law degree from Harvard. “I went with the intention of like, okay, I'm going to use this law degree for something else, other than actually practicing law. So I focused on the environment and climate policy the whole time I was in law school. I wanted to work in this area post law school, and pretty quickly post post law school and then I wound up just working for a law firm briefly and then pretty quickly after law school, I ended up at the Earth Day Initiative in 2011, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Oppermann said the main goal of the Earth Day Initiative is to connect people to things they can do to help move the needle of helping the environment in a positive direction.

“The number one question that we get, either from our supporters or the general public, is what can I do?” Oppermann pointed out. “And people are really just clamoring to feel like they're doing something positive because the environmental challenges can feel so big,”

For example, Oppermann said that people are able to obtain lists and guidelines of perhaps 100 ways they can live a green lifestyle. “That can feel so overwhelming in and of itself,” he explained.

He continued: “So some might say, ‘I don't even know where to begin.’ What we tried to do is break things down into really convenient, or at least understandable ways of moving things in the right direction, things that you could do that actually will have an impact.”

This year, the Earth Day Initiative is focused on all of the different ways that people can be doing big things in their life around climate action. “Under this administration, the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, and it created this system where we will address climate change as a country with all of the actions of individual households.”

Oppermann said that many people are unaware that the legislation provides thousands and thousands of dollars per household in tax credits and rebates. “These can be gained through things like home energy efficiency upgrades, installing renewable energy on site at your home, buying an electric vehicle, and installing an electric vehicle charging station. The legislation is really aimed at making that infrastructure transfer that we need, he said. It empowers individuals and households to be part of that shift, while saving money.

While we're not at a point in this country of putting a ban on fossil fuels, Oppermann says in the meantime it's a carrot, and not stick, approach to incentivize moves in the right direction.

“We built out this campaign on our website, called the “Climate Action Guide” where people can check out all these resources. There's even a calculator provided by one of our partners, Rewiring America, where you can enter your information and it will provide all these results around how you can save money.”

Finally, Oppermann could not stress enough how important it is to vote.

“It is so essential to vote. We talk a lot about how our voices are a lot more important than we give them credit for. Yes, you can take steps on your own, you can save money by doing so, and it’s equally critical to vote. It’s the most effective way of raising your voice around something that you care about. And people really do need to pay attention to who is running, and get out to the polls on election day to vote for those who want to do all they can to address climate change.”

“The worst thing that we can collectively do to ignore climate change is to have an apathetic populace when it comes to voting,” Oppermann warned.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.