Fifty years ago today, millions celebrated the first Earth Day — inspiring strong new environmental protections and launching a movement. The work is far from complete. But on this anniversary, we are all responding to a new global threat: the COVID-19 pandemic.
This devastating public health crisis is reshaping our world in profound ways. It is also providing an opportunity to reflect more expansively on the biggest environmental and social challenge of our time — climate change. Three clear parallels emerge between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis.
>> We have a collective responsibility to each other.
The coronavirus pandemic lays bare that our fates are tied to our neighbors’, and their fates are tied to everyone around the world. The same is true with climate, where we all have our hands on the Earth’s thermostat. Our individual choices can have far-reaching impacts. The pandemic reminds us that we are globally co-dependent, and that calls on each of us to accept our role in the solution. We cannot exempt our individual actions thinking that it’s someone else’s responsibility.
The pandemic also illuminates the artificial boundaries we’ve established to separate ourselves from others. We are a species fighting for survival — not as an individual or a company or a country, but as a whole. The divisions that too often shape our choices don’t always serve us. We’re all in this together — even when we are socially distant.
>> Humanity has an incredible ability to mobilize and adapt.
It’s striking how a pandemic can disrupt seemingly unbreakable social norms and habits. In a matter of weeks or even days, people across the world have adjusted their ways of life, not only for their own well-being but for the health and safety of those around them. Humanity has stepped up to make sacrifices that previously seemed inconceivable, and we are redefining what’s socially responsible for the greater good.
We’re also seeing the importance of responding with urgency. Both the coronavirus and climate are time-bound challenges — the longer we wait and debate, the deadlier the outcomes. Like coronavirus, climate is a non-linear risk; every day we wait to respond means diminishing hope to “flatten the curve” — on emissions, temperature and impact tipping points. The pandemic has provided a potent lesson on the need to stay ahead of complex global challenges. It is amazing to see what is possible when policy is mobilized to address a dire emergency. We’re currently witnessing many leaders step up to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. We need the same leadership on climate, before it’s too late.
>> Crises amplify inequities in our society.
The fact that the coronavirus can afflict anyone suggests that the disease is a great levelizer. While that may be true in some ways, the deeper truth is that the virus — like the impacts of climate change — discriminates. The more vulnerable and economically disadvantaged among us are the hardest hit. We have seen this time and time again, with the most devastating consequences of climate change — famine, flooding, fires — being suffered by those with less privilege.
While most of us quarantine at home, others have no home. Access to quality medical care is lumpy, as is access to economic stability and support. Some may receive economic bailouts, while others must fend for themselves. Like climate change, our current public health crisis is exposing the critical need for deep structural and systems changes to fix underlying inequities that have left many behind.
The speed and saliency of the coronavirus pandemic have been a powerful wake-up call. We have an opportunity to emerge from this stronger, wiser, more just, and with an emboldened sense of global resolve to collectively respond to our other shared crisis: climate change. It would be a fitting honor to the efforts launched half a century ago on the very first Earth Day. Because as we’ve been reminded so vividly through this pandemic, we’re all on this planet together.
Melissa Miyashiro is managing director of strategy and policy, and Jeff Mikulina is executive director of Blue Planet.