TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Our planet observed its 52nd Earth Day on April 22. It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings. Along the way it has seen major accomplishments, but now faces even greater challenges.

In 1969, the Vietnam war was raging overseas and, at home, decades of industrialization had taken its toll, clogging our skies and seas with toxic pollution. Off the coast of Santa Barbara, a catastrophic oil spill killed dolphins, seals and sea lions.

Susan Bass from Earthday.org says a convergence of outrage over environmental catastrophe piggy-backed on the energy of the anti-war protestors.

“It really captured the energy at the time – everyone could understand, there were rivers on fire in their communities and they had to do something about it,” she said.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans took part in the protests. The outcry bore almost immediate fruit. By the end of the year, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, followed quickly by passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

The regulations have been incredibly successful. Since the 1970s, air pollution has decreased by three-quarters in the U.S. – saving millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

But because climate change was scarcely understood back then, the laws weren’t designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. And now, even with overwhelming evidence, Bass says policy to combat climate change remains elusive.   

News Channel 8’s Chief Meteorologist and Climate Specialist Jeff Berardelli asked Bass why she thinks climate change is so much more challenging than traditional pollution?

“Well, there’s also a lot of very strong vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and they have very strong political supporters,” Bass said. “There’s a lot of money involved in the status quo.”