More than half a century ago, the world began devoting one day a year to celebrate the earth. For Kathleen Rogers, that turned into a decades-long mission.
Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers, right, looks on as actress Gabrielle Union, left, signs her name on an inflatable globe at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, 25 January 2016. (Photo by Jud Burkett/Invision for Toyota Mirai Music Lodge/AP Images)
The first-ever Earth Day took place in the year 1970. U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson had recognised the void in legal and regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment and wanted to force this issue onto the U.S. national agenda.
Tomorrow, more than 50 years later, we celebrate International Earth Day. To mark the occasion, News Decoder interviewed Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network. An environmental attorney, Rogers is an advocate who specialises in international and domestic environmental public policy and law.
Rogers described her early life as “crazy.” Every year she tried almost everything she came across. In her early 20s, for example, she moved to Paris to learn the French language and to play the violin.
“I grew up in a big family and my parents encouraged us to travel,” Rogers said. “They were interested in education, art and music, which I was terrible at by the way. I was so bad at it, people would constantly tell me to stop playing the violin.”
To sustain the Parisian life, among many things, she cleaned houses, owned a bakery with her friend and worked for the International Olympics Committee. Later on, Rogers earned a law degree at the University of California, Davis, where she was editor of the law review. That led to a clerkship with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
“It was a great, great honor,” Rogers said.
Working towards a better future for the Earth
After the clerkship, she took off with the man she would later marry on a months-long ‘dollar-a-day’ trip throughout Asia, only to return to Washington.
“I did not like it at all,” Rogers said. “I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work for bad companies.”
She joined the nonprofit sector and ended up with the Earth Day Network where she focused on climate education and building support groups with those doing youth-focused action work. She also launched a practice that focused on environmental crimes.
To Rogers, the green economy is tens, hundreds or even thousands of times bigger than the industrial revolution. In November 2022, together with other organisations, Earth Day Network established a Climate Education Coalition committed to preparing future and current generations for the consequences of climate change and to find ways to solve them.
News Decoder spoke to Rogers about that and about other ways to think about climate action. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
An interview with Kathleen Rogers
News Decoder: Why is the Climate Education Coalition important?
Kathleen Rogers: We do believe that if kids aren’t educated, particularly in the Global South, they’re gonna get screwed just like they did in the tech revolution and the Industrial Revolution. So we are working hard to promote climate education for everybody, not just wealthy nations.
ND: This movement for climate education is gaining traction, but don’t you think it’s too late?
KR: First of all, we have a chance to remake the world.
We are promoting climate education that is tied to job creation, entrepreneurism, innovation and political engagement — depending on the country, obviously. It’s not just science.
What are the opportunities that climate change has for engaging youth? One is in job creation. For example, in the U.S. we need a million electrical engineers. It’s insane. Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago? But I don’t think it’s gonna take a generation.
I think you can graduate kids from high school in four years, foster entrepreneurship and get them civically engaged. Harvard Medical School just issued a requirement that to graduate you must be climate knowledgeable. This is the first school in the world and that only took them a couple of years, not decades.
ND: It is inspiring that you think we can do it that fast. We thought we would need a generation or two.
KR: No! It requires a ton of money and thoughtfulness, but we can do it in four years.
ND: Do you think because of the magnitude of climate change that governments are less likely to act on it?
KR: No. It’s because they all get money from petroleum companies. That’s the reason. They are completely corrupt everywhere. Otherwise, how do you explain [U.S. President Joe Biden] who just passed a trillion dollars initiative to save the U.S. from climate change, and then sometime later he approves one of the largest oil projects?
ND: Yes, the Willow Project. I’m seeing young people all over TikTok post about this.
KR: Exactly, why would [young people] then go out and vote for a Democrat? We could be done with this in 10 years, but we have oil to dig up and sell. It’s all about money and corruption at the end of the day.
ND: It makes you wonder, where is the end of it? How far can we go? It cannot get any worse, right? It’s time to start fixing the planet, but then governments and corporations manage to do something shocking. What can you do as a citizen?
KR: Yeah, it is depressing. But I am an optimist. That’s why I think education is the key. Since Earth Day was founded nobody invested in [climate] education. Nothing! Now we have this opportunity to do it a different way. To make it equitable and fair, focusing on the right things like building a green economy and green consumer movement.
ND: Obviously, life isn’t black and white. But if we were to point fingers at the main culprit of [climate change], would it be fossil fuels companies?
KR: Yes, of course, but it’s governments who are complicit. And what would these [oil] countries do without all the income? What would the U.S. do? We would figure it out, eventually.
ND: How do you solve this giant problem?
KR: The only solution is leadership, education and taxation.
ND: As most of us know, education was not obligatory before the Industrial Revolution. It was a luxury. Even though 200 years have passed and most of us have access to free education, our education system seems to be locked in the Industrial Revolution. Now we need green revolutionists, we need people to save the Earth. What can we do?
KR: We all do what we can do right? But there needs to be more of us. We have to save ourselves, get people out on the streets and get them to vote.
ND: That comes back to the problem of young people not trusting the governments, not wanting to vote, doesn’t it?
KR: Exactly and in the meantime the governments are taking the right-hand turn, surveilling their communities, making sure nobody protests. There’s no end. I believe women and girls need to step it up. Get out there, get together and protest. I think we are very effective, we have a special role to play.
ND: If you were to speak to your younger self, let’s say 25-year-old Kathleen, what would you tell her?
KR: Well, put in more effort. I mean I have always been “an organiser,” but if [young people] can even do one thing a week, then sign one petition, make one phone call, get behind political candidates that they care about. I’m tired of the world telling individuals that it’s all our fault. No. It’s governments and businesses. Don’t beat yourself up — push them to do more. Push ’em.
Three questions to consider:
- What substantial good has come out of our symbolic celebration of the planet on Earth Day?
- Why did Kathleen Rogers not want to work for an environmental law firm?
- What can you do to help make the earth healthier?
Karolina Krakowiak is News Decoder’s Project Management Intern for The Writing’s on the Wall. Leaving engineering behind and following her passion, Karo decided to move to Paris and pursue a Master’s degree in International Management and Sustainability at the American University in Paris. Both in her professional and private life, she prioritizes nature, kindness and mindfulness.