April 22nd, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Remember when we used to celebrate days like that?
Amongst the chaos and sadness that’s gripping the world because of the global COVID-19 outbreak, it’s easy to overlook this Earth Day in place of more urgent matters like widespread job loss. I get it.
But as economies are on hold and communities around the world are self-isolating, Earth Day carries on, becoming a historic day for us in more ways than one. And it needs our attention now more than ever.
By no means can we ever justify COVID-19 as a “good” thing to happen to the world. However, if you follow the news, you might be inclined to think COVID-19 is having a positive effect on the environment.
Air quality has improved, noise pollution has dropped, people can hear birds chirping and even catch a glimpse of wildlife in their cities. While we may be getting a sneak peek into what the world could look like, experts are saying that COVID-19 will be detrimental to environmental issues in the long run.
I know, I know. You’ve seen the before and after photos of LA’s air pollution. Perhaps you’ve seen the clearer waterways, and you saw that dolphins are swimming in the Venice canals again. While these are all good things, they are also very temporary, and some viral news stories are even FAKE. They are the short-term results of a long-term problem that we must not lose sight of.
Let’s look at air pollution. Short-term air pollution, which can last for a few days or a few hours, has decreased. This is why the cities you live in are free from smog. Yes, this is good news; however, despite the drop in pollution, greenhouse gasses are still being emitted.
The World Meteorological Organization reported that Carbon Dioxide Levels are still reaching record highs.
Oksana Tarasova, Head of Atmospheric Environment Research Division WMO, explains “If we look at how the levels of atmospheric CO2 are formed, it’s not annual emissions in particular which are controlling the levels; it’s the total accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times which form the current level. So, the reduced emissions within one particular year of this scale are very unlikely to have an impact on global levels of carbon dioxide.”
In short, a year of reduced carbon emissions isn’t going to make a difference.
The clean waterways you’re seeing are a direct result of low human impact (i.e., boats which stir up sediment in the water) and is not indicative of pollution. Clearwater can still be very polluted. Murky waters can be free of pollution.
The wildlife you see in your cities will disappear from the streets as soon as regular human activity resumes.
And the dolphins? I’m sorry to report that those photos were taken in Sardinia, 800km away from Venice, and is not a particularly uncommon occurrence.
I’m sorry if this bursts your bubble, but I’m not telling you this to add insult to injury.
Of course, a reduction in pollution right now is excellent; however, in the grand scheme of things, the environmental impact from COVID-19 will be nominal at best, and incredibly detrimental at its worst.
Why? Because as global economies suffocate and governments and businesses are tightening their belts, one of the first initiatives of any commercial or government to get cut is sustainability.
We have already seen several governments announce that they are lowering environmental standards, suspending environmental monitoring requirements, reducing environmental enforcement, and restricting public participation. Governments are using COVID-19 as an excuse to roll back environmental progress. DAMN.
The greenwashing in the news is giving people the idea that this is a problem that we can fix with just a few months of lifestyle changes. To be clear, this is a problem we can fix, but it’s going to take a lot longer than two months. It’s going to require real leadership and global cooperation. An easy ask, right?
Don’t lose hope.
That feeling of fresh air and clean water is obtainable, but to get there, we must not forget the environment now when it needs us the most, and we must not forget it when life goes back to normal.
For the first time in modern history, we are getting a rare glimpse into a future we could have. Human activity is on pause and with it, mass pollution too. We see the results of an unplanned experiment. Earth can heal if we stop hurting her, but we have a long way to go.
If this global pandemic teaches you anything, let it be this: the Climate Crisis is so big that even months of completely halted human activity still isn’t enough to negate decades of climate abuse.
Even the most convincing photos of our world healing itself exaggerate the impact we as individuals have on the environment. Sure, keep recycling, do your beach cleanups, use those reusable coffee cups.
Just don’t lose sight that the climate crisis is much bigger than that. It’s so much bigger than one person.
The damage we’ve caused to the world through our obsession with fossil fuels cannot be reversed by a few months of “calling it quits.” This is a very real long-term problem that requires immediate and large-scale action on a global level.
If that makes you feel small and helpless, you’re not alone.
I often reflect on the minimal impact I, one singular person, can create. The truth is that any significant change with tangible impact will need to come from the top.
We need to elect leaders who will take this seriously. We must have governments prioritize climate change mitigation even during a global pandemic. Staying informed about corporations and their environmental priorities and when they don’t align with our personal views is essential, and we need to hold them accountable.
To solve the climate crisis, we need to do more than use reusable shopping bags.
We need to mobilize as a nation, as a global community and demand structural change, and we need to do it now. Not in a few months. Not in 2 years when COVID has settled down. Now.
Relish hearing the chirping of the birds. Enjoy seeing a pack of coyotes roam through your city streets. Soak in the fresh air you can breathe in unapologetically. Take it all in now because when COVID-19 is over, we’ll not only be back to where we were, we’ll be worse off.
Some day, although it may not feel like it now, this global pandemic will be in our past. When it is, what will we have learned from our lived experiences? Will we care about our smog levels again once we return to work and eat out at our favorite restaurant, or will we shove it under the rug in exchange for resuming our lives?
Perhaps this will be the end of capitalism or fossil fuels or senseless selfishness. We may never be able to go back to the way things were. We have a rare, unique opportunity right now to imagine the way things can be.
So happy Earth Day, friends. Try not to be discouraged, my fellow earth dwelling nature lovers. The problem may seem impossible now, but we can each play our part. Have the hard conversations. Discuss the climate crisis with your friends, your family, your stubborn conservative grandpa. When the time comes to cast your vote in November, remember Mother Earth and the overwhelming task at hand.
What do you think? How can we help honor Earth Day every day? Have anything else to add? Spill.