For the second time since its 50th anniversary last year, Earth Day will be marked Thursday without the typical large public gatherings and demonstrations; no banners unfurled, no speeches to gathered crowds; even as hopes rise that the covid pandemic will wane as vaccinations rise.
Except for a few smaller-scale — yet still important — volunteer cleanup events on beaches, in parks and in communities, much of Earth Day 2021 is again online, with remote meet-ups that attempt to keep the message going regarding the importance of efforts to heal the environment, save threatened and endangered species and slow the march of climate change and its looming catastrophes.
Yet, maybe that helps to make the point that Earth Day can’t be a one-day public event; instead it’s an everyday commitment each can make to reduce adverse impacts on the environment, and practice and support efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our own lives, personally and collectively.
And it’s a message — after four years of inaction, backsliding and a lack of international leadership on these issues at the federal level — that is all the more imperative as time ticks away for our actions to have sufficient chance to limit the worst of consequences that are more than barreling down on us but have in many ways already arrived.
Because of the inertia behind climate change even our best efforts won’t quickly stop warming global temperatures, melting ice caps and glaciers, changes in precipitation, more droughts and heat waves, more crop failures, stronger and more intense hurricanes and other storms and sea level rise.
The Northwest itself, which many might hope to be more protected from the worst consequences of climate change, can expect — according to assessments from the U.S. Global Change Research Program — reduced water supplies from mountain stream-flows, sea level rise for many coastal communities and risks to infrastructure, increasing ocean acidity and its harms to marine life, and increased damage to forestlands from insects and disease that heighten an already growing threat from longer and more intense wildfire seasons on both sides of the Cascades.
While many are sufficiently motivated by images of gaunt polar bears stranded on ice floes, others are more likely to be influenced by the effects they experience in their own lives, especially when weighing what they perceive to be the costs of confronting climate change against their livelihoods, local economies and their taxes.
That accounting may misjudge costs and benefits.
By way of example: Last year, Washington lost some 812,000 acres to wildfires both in Western and Eastern Washington, resulting in more than $150 million spent in fighting those fires, a sum that represents only 9 percent of the season’s total costs, including losses in property, adverse health impacts and lost business. Tragically, one late summer fire in Central Washington claimed the life of a one-year-old boy and left his parents with third-degree burns. And 2020 was second only to the losses suffered in 2015, when Washington wildfires claimed 1.1 million acres.
Nationally, wildfires caused nearly $100 billion in damages to property, businesses and infrastructure, compared to an average of $18 billion annually in the 1980s, according to a climate Q&A in The New York Times.
What Washington state intends on spending over the next two years to address the growing threat from wildfires can illustrate the bargain represented by investments in climate initiatives.
While state lawmakers have yet to complete their budget negotiations, the state is expected to allocate a record $125 million in the next two-year budget to be spent on firefighting and forest health and fire prevention initiatives. That investment, of course, offers no guarantee the state won’t again face losses similar to 2020, but continued investments over coming years can help limit the losses that threaten to mount into the billions of dollars for Washington state alone.
Again, turning to the New York Times Q&A, it is estimated that efforts to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would require a median investment of $16 trillion worldwide and a median $30 trillion to achieve 1.5 degree limit, while a Moody’s Analytics assessment estimates that if warming is successfully limited to 2 degrees, global losses by 2100 could total $69 trillion; and $54 trillion if warming is held to 1.5 degrees.
“Warming beyond the 2-degree Celsius threshold could hit tipping points for even larger and irreversible warming feedback loops such as permanent summer ice melt in the Arctic Ocean,” Moody’s warns, not to mention even far greater losses to life, health, species and national economies.
Here’s the bargain: In more general terms, the investments proposed at the state and national levels — particularly by the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan and its proposals for infrastructure improvements to the electric grid, electric vehicles and charging stations, public transportation, research into renewable energy and battery technology and more — can help limit carbon emissions, reduce air pollution and create jobs, while fending off far greater losses and oppressive impacts on communities most vulnerable to the repercussions of climate change and to the world at large.
If you’re wondering what you can do to mark Earth Day: Yes, help clean up your local community, parks and beaches, but also make sure your representatives at all levels of government understand your support for the investments and policies that can result in the greatest efforts to limit climate change and mitigate its effects.
We can no longer assume that the calculus comes out in favor of doing nothing in order to keep our current way of life.
The truth is there is no alternative to climate action in which we pay nothing. We are already paying. And if we don’t act we stand to lose so much more.
Earth Day activities
To participate in the Plastic Free Salish Sea shoreline cleanup in Snohomish County bring collected litter from 2 to 6 p.m., Thursday to Twin Rivers County Park in Arlington, Esperance County Park in Edmonds, the Snohomish County Campus or McCollumn County Park in Everett or Fairfield County Park in Monroe. Go to www.snocomrc.org/projects/earth-day/ for details.
Attend the online event at EarthDay.org at 9 a.m. Pacific, Thursday, with discussions, performances and workshops focusing on the day’s theme of restoring the Earth through natural solutions, technological innovations and new ideas.