“Hey,” says climate change, “Congratulations on all your success. Can I get the name of your publicist?” reads a joke making the rounds ever since the pandemic started. For many environmentalists, the contrast between our urgent and comprehensive response to COVID-19 and our lack of response and seriousness to the climate crisis is saddening.
The virus seems to have done more to lower emissions than any other alternative or plan of action over the last several years. Today marks the 50th year of Earth Day is being celebrated. Though Earth Day organizers have made efforts to internationalize the event in recent years, the original Earth Day in 1970 was a largely white middle-class event.
The event had the support of local, state and federal officials (Pat and Dick Nixon planted a tree), and it had more than 20 million participants, nearly 10 per cent of the U.S. population at the time. In January of 1970, just months before Earth Day, President Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.
But now, thanks to the stay-at-home orders, the Earth is finally going through some real changes on the climate front on Earth day. The public health restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in a sharp dip in air pollution across China, Europe and the US, with carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels heading for a record 5% annual drop. The oil industry, a key driver of the climate crisis and direct environmental disaster, is in turmoil, with a barrel of crude hitting an unprecedented minus-$40 on Monday.
These would have been the sort of outcome years ago, if stringent environmental policies had been put in place on the first Earth Day in 1970. Instead, the COVID-19 shutdown has highlighted how the world’s response has been – but the expected cut in emissions, for example, is still less than what scientists say is needed every year this decade to avoid disastrous climate change.
How people react to the return of normalcy after the pandemic will help determine what happens further.
“It’s a serious wake-up call,” said Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist who coined the term “biological diversity”. “We bulldoze into the last remaining places in nature and then are surprised when something like this happens. We have done this to ourselves by our continual intrusion into nature. We have to re-chart our course.”
Though the pandemic might have been an unfortunate effort at making amendments - post the lockdown and crisis, what will be the result? Will it become better or worse?