Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. 

On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans took to the streets, rallying from coast to coast to demand a cleaner, healthier environment. Today, we reflect on all of the advances made — in which universities played a significant part — leading to landmark legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fifty years later, Earth Day has grown into a global movement and landmark day of celebration and solidarity for the environmental community. Today, we find ourselves in the midst of a climate reminiscent of the same social, political and cultural upheaval that catalyzed millions to act urgently in the name of Mother Earth, coupled with the existential threat of climate change. Over the last few weeks, we’ve all experienced the complete disruption of our daily lives and routines due to COVID-19. 

The University’s response to the crisis has been exceptional and inspiring. This moment we are living through is traumatic and life-altering, but through it we can also see the opportunity and imperative for climate progress and the re-centering of collective action to create a better world. What can we do, as Yalies and as global citizens, to honor this anniversary and advance the collective vision of Earth Day’s founders?

Yale Blue Green, Yale’s alumni shared interest group for environment and sustainability, has launched an initiative to urge Yale to dramatically increase its commitment to leadership in sustainability and to engage alumni to make that vision a reality. 

Yale and Yalies have consistently made history at the forefront of every major milestone in environmental education, research, conservation, activism and governance in the last century. The Yale Sustainability Plan continues to articulate the framework and offers a vision of a Yale where sustainability is seamlessly integrated into the scholarship and operations of the University, contributing to its social, environmental and financial excellence and positioning Yale as a local and global leader. President Salovey’s climate change task force formed last fall is quickly and creatively exploring how the University can achieve net zero carbon emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and carbon neutrality by or before 2050.

But Yale cannot rest on its laurels. Climate change is too urgent a threat. In the spirit of Yale’s commitment to “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation and practice,” the initiative urges Yale to hold sustainability as central to fulfilling its mission — to insert sustainability into the University’s DNA, deliberately and irrevocably. The foundation is already laid; it is time to kick into a higher gear.

We call upon Yale to reaffirm its commitment to global leadership in sustainability.

What does this mean in practice? We believe that at Yale, sustainability should be a prominent, integrated focus within scholarship and leadership across all its schools and centers. Yale and its alumni are uniquely positioned to serve a world hungering for moral leadership and leaders who can communicate vision and values in times of rapid change and uncertainty. For civil dialogue driven by facts and science. For innovation and technology that advance the public good. For trustworthy institutions that model empathy and equity. For values-driven decision-making that puts people and the planet first.

As a globally renowned research institution, Yale has the opportunity, and an urgent imperative, to take a stand, lead and change the world. This is global leadership that will set the standard for what other universities and institutions will aspire to be in principle and in practice.

Alumni stand ready to engage in this effort. 

My fellow alums, let’s begin a dialogue to map the resources and relationships of our alumni community. Let’s fundraise like never before to give Yale the support it needs to lead the world in environmental research and scholarship. Let’s give our time and activate our networks to build Yale’s community of environmental alumni and build systems for knowledge sharing that support on-campus efforts and enrich our collective consciousness.

We ask Yale to mobilize its resources to advance sustainability in novel ways. 

Together, let’s put every idea on the table to harness the breadth and depth of Yale’s resources to advance theory, research and practice in the name of our precious planet.  We have a rare and timely opportunity to reimagine how we design and teach interdisciplinary environmental curriculum to match the matrix of challenges that students will face as future practitioners in the field in the coming decades. 

Alumni can help fund fellowships for cutting-edge research to inform public policy at the intersection of environment, artificial intelligence and public health to mitigate the next pandemic. We can elevate and study intergenerational indigenous wisdom as a pillar of sustainability solutions and thought leadership on how humans can relate to the natural world. We can support global affairs scholarship to position Yale as the single best place to study the impacts of climate change on human migration, peace-building and foreign policy. We can do all this and more, together.

The seeds and saplings of this work are already thriving at Yale. Alumni have an important part to play in serving as amplifiers of progress and stewards of change. Though the world already has the fundamental tools needed for progressive climate action, many of the innovations to combat climate change and restore our ecosystems are yet to be developed. Undoubtedly, some of those innovations will come, as they have often come, from the Yale community.

Let us act now to build on the living legacy of Earth Day, and take to heart that our alma mater has a vision and a goal, one that we can contribute to side by side, with confidence and solidarity.

On behalf of Yale Blue Green, I invite all members of the Yale community to add your name to support our initiative, engage with our working groups and commit alongside Yale to play your part in building a more sustainable future.

LAUREN GRAHAM is a 2013 alumnus of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, and the chair of Yale Blue Green. Contact her at lauren.graham@aya.yale.edu .