Editorial: Pandemic won’t cancel Earth Day

But the economic shutdown it has forced has shown what can be gained in reducing carbon emissions.

By The Herald Editorial Board

During the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — then 10 percent of the U.S. population — took to the streets to demand action to reduce the pollution, loss of habitat and threat to animal species and other environmental degradation that could no longer be ignored.

Fifty years later, on what should be a milestone anniversary for the movement — and with ever-worsening details continuing to emerge about the threats from climate change — the social-distancing requirements necessary to limit the destruction of the coronavirus pandemic will mean no mass demonstrations will march through the streets, banners will not be raised at parks, speakers will not step up to podiums.

Yet, Earth Day has not been canceled.

As with much of our daily lives, nearly all of what would have happened out in public has moved online. Earth Day Live, for example, is a 72-hour-long live-streaming event, April 22-24, organized by the Youth Climate Strike Coalition and others, intended to engage people in climate action. Parents looking for Earth Day activities for students at home can consult NASA’s #EarthDayAtHome page, offering an Earth Day toolkit with educational activities and resources. And the Earth Day Network offers information on online events, as well as a history and background about Earth Day and its movement.

It shouldn’t take demonstrations — public or online — to make the point about the threat posed by global climate change. Even with attention focused on a global pandemic, climate change and its increasing pace of harm are plainly evident.

Among examples in just the last week:

• A study published in the journal Science, finds that several western U.S. states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Idaho) are now locked in the most severe multi-decade megadrought of the past 1,200 years, resulting from warming temperatures, increasing evaporation and earlier spring snowmelt, The Washington Post reported.

• Scientists also have confirmed that the Greenland ice sheet saw a near-record rate of melt last summer, much faster than the average of previous decades and continues to lose more ice annually than it gains, The Guardian reported. Nearly 96 percent of Greenland’s ice sheet suffered retreat in 2019, compared to just over 64 percent between 1981 and 2010.

Ironically, the global economic slowdown that the coronavirus pandemic has forced has provided a “breather” from the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

In China, a Washington Post report notes, greenhouse gas emissions are down 25 percent in recent weeks and air pollution itself has eased because of fewer vehicles on its roads and a reduction in coal burning. Globally, a 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions is expected this year, the biggest drop on record, The Guardian reported recently.

Locally, we’ve seen significant reductions in traffic — transportation being the largest source of carbon emissions in the state — on I-5 and other commuter routes as the state’s stay-home orders continue.

Such reductions are common during economic downturns caused by war and recession, the last one occurring in the U.S. during 2008’s Great Recession. But those dips in emissions have been short-lived as economies resumed and even increased emissions as they attempted to make up for lost ground.

It would be unrealistic and counterproductive to think we could secure environmental victories — even one as crucial as combating the existential threat of climate change — by throwing this and other nations’ economies into an induced coma.

But the virus has permitted a look past the smog at what can be gained by limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s allowed us, as well, to consider changes we can make that could aid those reductions. Could employers consider encouraging their employees to work from home one or more days each week, limiting how often we commute? Do the online conferencing apps we’ve used in recent weeks offer an alternative to travel? Can we further develop opportunities and systems for online learning and telemedicine?

We, of course, can’t — and won’t — allow a microbe to make the decisions we need to make to confront climate change. Fortunately, we don’t have to.

“A complete switch from coal to low-carbon generation — or a modest carbon pricing policy — can provide emissions reduction on the same order of magnitude as a war, recession, or a pandemic,” Kenneth Gillingham, a Yale economics professor told The Washington Post. “This provides at least a sliver of a reason for optimism.”

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped Earth Day. Organizers, rather than giving up, adjusted and used the tools available to continue their efforts for action.

With the same resolve we have used against the viral pandemic, we can make reductions in the carbon emissions that pose a threat as grave but of far-longer duration.

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