Opinion

Earth Day 2020: How the COVID-19 will change the way we look at the planet

Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, tells us how, if we finally listen to science, coronavirus could spell a brighter future

Right now, I feel like we’re in the middle of a sci-fi movie. At the end of those movies, after the spaceships leave Earth, everybody comes out on the street –on Times Square, in London, tribes in Africa – to cheer in this shared relief that something alien is gone. In the movie there’s no day after.

In my sci-fi movie that’s the first scene. And what happens next? That’s what we’re working on.

We were calling 2020 ‘Earth Year’. It would start the countdown on a decade to deal with climate. A lot of the countries were going to commit to their climate adjustment numbers by Earth Day [April 22]. And it’s all gone. We expected 500 million people to participate in the Great Global Cleanup. It’s just going to have to wait.

Ignoring science is a really bad thing

I had been saying that 2020 was going to change everything. Maybe the lessons of this pandemic are exactly what I was talking about, even though I’m certainly no soothsayer. Ignoring science is a really bad thing. Understand what might happen if we do nothing in the face of warning after warning after warning. 

Without being thoughtless about the tragedy, the parallels between ignoring science, the failure to prepare or head it off at the pass, are so screamingly relevant.

Let me say straight up, I don’t think the climate crisis is our problem. I agree consumers need to be conscious of their choices and we have a lot of power if we exercise it collectively, don’t get me wrong. But I also think this is a perfect opportunity to say, governments and companies have the moral, financial and every other obligation to step it up, stop making everything about quarterly profits and stepping on each other to get ahead.

Fifty years ago, 20 million people came out on the street for the first Earth Day [main picture]. This Earth Day will be dead silent. It’s ironic. In 1970, members of Congress became paranoid when they saw all those people and decided to work together. Richard Nixon, who is not exactly the most beloved president in the United States, signed our most important law, which was called National Environmental Policy Act. In the UK you have the exact same law. It gives you the right to know information about polluters, gives you the right to sue them and all this other stuff. Right after the first Earth Day they passed every environmental law that is on the books around endangered species and air and water – it was all bipartisan – and these laws were exported and adopted around the world.

Today? It’s such a profoundly different era. In the US, under the cover of Covid-19, almost a third of our major environmental laws are being rolled back. Not just cancelled for the next 60 days, bureaucrats must be working overtime to knock everything back a decade.

For instance, Trump has rolled back fuel economy standards [the law forcing car manufacturers to make more efficient engines]. I mean, what’s the point? The industry was doing it, they’re not going to go recalibrate their machines to make them pollute more. It reminds me of the 1950s when they spent the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying the government against seatbelt laws. Immediately afterwards they started selling safety. That’s what was happening now, companies were selling the fact they were going green or carbon-neutral. Now, all of a sudden, ‘Oh, never mind. Just do whatever you want.’

Not only are we learning about the failure to believe in science and the failure to be prepared, but also what happens when governments make a lot of useless noise to get things done that they couldn’t do in daylight.

To me, it seems not just short-sighted, but capitalising on tragedy. For no reason other than short-term gain, and it’s the long game that we should all be talking about. It’s not just the US, I am seeing so much idiosyncratic and inappropriate pandering to polluters. Governments intent on doing exactly the wrong thing when we need them most.

That’s why in my sci-fi movie, the scene after everybody comes out on the streets cheering has got to be about voting. It has to be about calling corporations and governments to the table and saying enough is enough.

The introspection and self-isolation that’s happening now will run in parallel to the effort to get companies up and running again and people employed, which I totally empathise with. Governments are going to be inclined to climb out of this situation as fast as they can, because there are millions and millions and millions of people filing unemployment claims.

But these and so many other issues, from climate refugees to homelessness, are environmental. The definition of ‘environment’ is ‘what surrounds you’. It’s about your quality of life, and that of your community. We need to look at environmental issues really holistically and see how people are living.

We have a campaign called Vote Earth. We launched it at the EU parliamentary elections and it ran in Canada and Australia – in Australia, of course, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. They’ve got the worst prime minister. But voting is critically important.

We’ve got to step up the pressure. Draw the parallels, talk about science, make it really clear that anybody who doesn’t believe in the data can’t be in control of anything.

If nothing else, after this we all need to be cognisant of the power of every single vote. Because if the government leaders won’t come along then we have to switch them up, get rid of them. That’s the power of democracies and voting.

Kathleen Rogers is president of the Earth Day Network, based in Washington. For information on virtual Earth Day events, including a day of live activities on April 22 visit earthday.org

As told to Steven MacKenzie

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