Fifty years ago, when 20 million Americans took part in the first nationwide Earth Day festivities, there was no Endangered Species Act. No National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. No Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Flame retardants were still viewed as a boon for human health. Nearly all cars were gas guzzlers. And terms like “carbon neutral,” “environmental justice” and “corporate sustainability” were decades away from entering our everyday vocabulary.

Times change.

This year, nearly one billion people worldwide are expected to observe Earth Day on April 22.

While the list of environmental woes facing our planet doesn’t seem to be growing any shorter, and the political will to tackle them seems to have stalled, we think it’s important not to lose sight of the progress we’ve made on many fronts.

To that end, we’ve compiled a timeline highlighting some of the major environmental milestones of the last half century and the challenges that remain.

September 27, 1962

Silent Spring is published, an environmental science book by Rachel Carson. The book documented the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

January 1, 1970

Congress passes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requiring every federal agency to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for any legislation.

April 22, 1970


The first Earth Day, a nationwide protest against environmental ignorance. An estimated 20 million people participate across the U.S.

July 9, 1970

President Nixon works with Congress to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new federal agency primarily responsible for United States environmental policy.

October 2, 1970

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is created to monitor and improve the conditions of the oceans.

October 18, 1972

The Clean Water Act (CWA) becomes the primary legislation governing water pollution in the country.

October 23, 1972

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects all marine mammals from importation, exportation, hunting, capture, or any form of harassment, thus encouraging natural resource management in the United States.

December 31, 1972

DDT is banned in the United States.

December 28, 1973

Congress passes the Endangered Species Act in order to prevent the extinction of animals in the United States.

June 26, 1974

President Nixon signs the Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act, the first attempt to balance the nation’s energy demands with appropriate environmental regulations.

October 11, 1976

The Toxic Substances Control Act mandates the EPA to control all new and existing chemical substances being used in the United States. The Act controls polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and other toxic products, although the management of existing chemicals are grandfathered and untouched by the act.

October 21, 1976

The EPA is given complete control over hazardous waste in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which mandates the agency manage all aspects of toxic waste management.

August 4, 1977

President Carter establishes the Department of Energy (DOE), charged with carrying out a comprehensive national energy plan that reflects the federal legislation.

June 15, 1978

The Supreme Court uses the 1973 Endangered Species Act as reason to stop the construction of the Tellico Dam in the Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill case. The decision upholds the rights of an endangered species over unrestricted expansion, and reflects growing American opposition to dam construction.

October 25, 1978

The Nimbus-7 spacecraft is launched as the first satellite with the technology to take comprehensive worldwide measurements of the ozone layer.

October 17, 1986

Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), a subset of the Superfund Amendments and Reorganization Act (SARA), requires industries to report toxic releases to the general public. The federal law creates the new State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) to enforce these new requirements.

September 16, 1987

The Montreal Protocol is signed by the U.S., Japan, Canada, and 21 other countries, agreeing to phase out ozone-depleting CFCs by the year 2000.

November 18, 1988

President Reagan signs the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988, a law that prohibits all waste dumping into the ocean starting in 1992.

December 6, 1988

The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

April 22, 1990

Earth Day becomes a global event. In a Gallup Poll, 76% of Americans – Democrats and Republicans alike – call themselves “environmentalists.”

November 15, 1990

Clean Air Act amendments strengthen restrictions on SOx and NOx emissions, helping reduce acid rain. The Pollution Prevention Act gives corporations new incentives to reduce pollutants.


Sweden is the first nation to impose a carbon tax to curb CO2 emissions. By 2010 the tax per ton was 128 euros, and the country’s economy had grown 44%.

December 1992

The UN General Assembly resolution which bans drift net fishing in international waters becomes effective.


President Clinton signs order restricting logging in old growth forests.


Lead in human blood declines: Study shows that US blood-lead levels declined by 78% from 1978 to 1991 during leaded gasoline phase-out. Meanwhile, American Academy of Pediatrics study shows direct relationship between lead exposure and IQ deficits in children.


Wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.


EPA air pollution report says sulfur dioxide emissions declined by 40% between 1970 and 1990. The report also claims smog, carbon monoxide and ozone levels are down since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

January 20, 2001

Bill Clinton leaves the presidency after protecting 58 million acres of national forest from development and creating eight million acres of land as new national monuments. Clinton’s conservation record is better than any president since Theodore Roosevelt, whose protection of 230 million acres of land as parks, wilderness, national forests and wildlife preserves remains unequalled.


The U.S. wind energy industry wins passage of an extended production tax credit for electricity generated by wind power.

February 16, 2005

Kyoto – With a majority of the world’s nations ratifying, the Kyoto Protocol officially goes into force without the U.S. It commits parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

June 2005

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore releases An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that describes global warming. The next year, Gore is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) for this and related efforts.

July 6, 2005

The European Parliament imposes a permanent ban on six chemicals known as “phthalates” used in plastic toys and childcare articles to soften the plastic because of their carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic effects.

April 2, 2007

US Supreme Court rules that states may regulate greenhouse gasses.

May 26, 2007

South Pacific deep sea trawling in areas with endangered coral reef systems ended by treaty.

June 20, 2007

Renewable energy investment now tops $100 billion per year, according to the UN Environmental Program.

January 25, 2008

US Forest Service opens 3.4 million acres (1.4 million hectares) of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging despite protests.

July 9, 2008

Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations agree to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. This is the first time that all eight countries made the climate commitment.

March 30, 2009

President Obama signs the largest wilderness protection bill in 15 years, protecting two million acres in nine states; mostly in California, followed by Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia, New Mexico and Michigan.

"This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted.”— PRESIDENT OBAMA

April 17, 2009

The US EPA rules that emissions of six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are a danger to public and should be regulated.

September 30, 2009

The EPA announces new Clean Air Act regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants.

April 22, 2010

The EPA issues rules on automotive fuel efficiency and, for the first time, regulates greenhouse gas emissions. New regulations for coal-fired power plants follow in July.

April 3, 2014

US Dept. of Justice levies largest environmental fine in US history against Andarko Petroleum — $5.15 billion — for damages suffered by Navajo tribes in the Southeastern US during uranium mining.

November 11, 2014

Concerned about depletion of fish stocks, regulators shut down cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine.

May 27, 2015

New rules limiting water pollution in the US are announced by the EPA.

July 25, 2015

Germany generates 78 percent of its electricity from wind and solar on this day, setting a new record.

September 25, 2015

Chinese premier Xi Jenping and US President Barack Obama announce new initiatives on containing greenhouse gasses.

November 6, 2015

President Obama stops construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada and the United States.

November 30 - December 12, 2015

196 UN member states draft an unprecedented agreement for “an ambitious and balanced” plan to control climate change (aka, the Paris Agreement). Two years later, President Trump announces the US will withdraw from it.

April 22, 2016

A Gallup Poll find that only 42% of Americans—and just 27% of Republicans – still consider themselves “environmentalists.”

September 15, 2016

The US and 20 other nations join in the creation of 40 new marine sanctuaries in oceans around the world.


The EPA removed seven Superfund sites, substantially or entirely, from the National Priorities List (NPL), sparking debate about ongoing efforts to clean contaminated sites.

November 2017

EPA found that more than 2,600 counties – roughly 85 percent of the US – met the stringent 2015 NAAQS standards for ground-level ozone.


Off the coast of Central America’s Belize, a section of the world’s second-largest coral reef is removed from UNESCO’s endangered list.

March 27, 2019

The European Union bans a wide range of single-use plastic items, including straws and cutlery. Local and state laws banning single-use plastic straws and bags begin spreading across the US.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around You. What You do makes a difference, and You have to decide what kind of difference You want to make.”