Crossover lessons: Earth Day and the pandemic

COVID-19 poses issues of living in harmony with nature that apply to climate change. Both problems require harmonious action.

A resident walks past tree shadows in Beijing, where carbon emissions were low during the COVID-19 crisis in March.

It’s been a half-century since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In a less unusual year, that 50th anniversary might have brought worldwide notice. But a pandemic has consumed most public attention. Yet the environmental issues that Earth Day highlights are as urgent as ever. In many ways, they are woven with the coronavirus crisis.

One issue is that humanity’s view of the natural world may be changing. COVID-19 is believed to have leaped to humans from another species. Will fear grow that other forms of life are dangerous and to be avoided? Or will a commitment grow to more deeply understand and live in harmony with the natural world?

Another issue posed by the virus: Will the need to reignite faltering economies result in less protection for the environment? That question poses a false choice. The environment and economy are too interrelated to suppose each fits into separate boxes. “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment,” pointed out Earth Day’s founder, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson. “Not the other way around.” A healthy economy rests on a healthy environment.

The world’s economic system has experienced a great disruption. Governments are responding with unprecedented speed and massive spending. Old rules of the road are being abandoned. Will people now accept radical steps to curb climate change?

Each year lost in reducing carbon emissions will make the need for future steps to be more drastic. The National Geographic Society recently calculated how climate change might affect cities 50 years from now. Boston, for example, would have summer temperatures 8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter on average, along with 2 inches more rain.

The shutdown of businesses during the coronavirus outbreak has been a global experiment in the benefits of clean air. As of March 8, the forced shuttering of factories in Wuhan, China, and the resulting reduction in air pollution saved an estimated 51,000 to 73,000 lives, estimates Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of earth system science at Stanford University. That total is far more than the lives reportedly lost to the virus in the surrounding Hubei province.

Earth Day has always been a call for individual action, including lifestyle changes and investments in clean technologies. That grassroots momentum has led to “green” policies by most governments and to international climate agreements. Yet progress has been slow.

Just as the COVID-19 crisis is bringing forth innovative solutions to a complex and urgent issue, new approaches are required on climate change. This year’s Earth Day, coming during a pandemic, is a reminder of the need for global action to solve a problem involving the whole planet. If humanity is in harmony on that, it can find harmony with the natural world.

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