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Earth Day in the Time of COVID-19

22 April 2020

Earth Day conjures images of people gathering, protesting, celebrating—shining a light on the Earth’s wonder and potential. The urgent need for action. Human connection and responsibility.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day against the backdrop of the coronavirus is surreal and worrying. Today the skies are a bit cleaner as a result of the pandemic, but at a staggering and unsustainable cost. A rapid decline in air travel and other economic activity has reduced greenhouse gas and particulate emissions. Oil prices have hit rock bottom. Consumption is down but demand for groceries, medical supplies, and cleaning products is surging.

But there is also room for optimism. Communities are rallying around health-care workers, teachers, elderly neighbors, and the immuno-compromised. Perhaps most strikingly, we are seeing rapid, systems-level action. We are proving that society can mobilize to respond to an emergency that is global in scale and requires action at all levels. As we debate how and when to reopen the economy, there is a hunger for technical expertise, reliable data, and science-based decision-making.

The coronavirus pandemic can and should have a lasting impact on our efforts to address another pressing and longer-term emergency: climate change. The similarities between climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are striking. Both are global emergencies driven by invisible “pollutants”—pollutants we generate or catalyze through the choices we make and through the choices that public policies and markets forces make for us. Both reveal the interconnected nature of our actions and the potential for far reaching (and devastating) unintended consequences.

In Congress, fights have waged over including measures that both stimulate economic recovery and address the longer-term existential threat of climate change. In each stimulus package, there are myriad opportunities for “two-fers” and “three-fers:” jobs/economy, health, and climate/environment. While it is heartening to see the nearly unanimous bipartisan support for a series of coronavirus aid packages, there is likely to be more discord as the debate shifts from emergency response to economic recovery. We must take lessons from COVID-19 to heart and overcome our highly polarized politics to take systemic action on the very real and current threat of climate change.

Climate scientists tell us we must act decisively to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of greenhouse gases—which, even during this economic slowdown, are emitted into the atmosphere every day in massive amounts. The exponential spread of the coronavirus has enhanced our collective consciousness of the exponential nature of the growing and existential threat of climate change.

The coronavirus is showing us, the world over, that we have the capacity to tackle really difficult challenges. These challenges require collective action. The work that we do here at Meridian to apply collaborative problem solving and consensus building to address these challenges is needed now more than ever. This is the message I take away on Earth Day this year. We can change our behavior—be it consumption, policy, or social interaction—to make our world safer: for our families, for the good of humanity, and for Planet Earth.