‘Climate change ought to hire Coronavirus’ publicist’

A wry joke that’s currently making the rounds on social media highlights the concerning irony of celebrating Earth Day’s 50th anniversary amidst a global pandemic.

‘Congratulations on all your success,’ says climate. ‘Can I get the name of your publicist?’ Designed to draw attention to the global environmental crisis we’re currently facing, Earth Day 2020 has been somewhat upstaged by Coronavirus. The movement’s annual event (celebrating it’s 50th anniversary today) has been overshadowed by the pandemic, which appears to have done more to alter behaviours and lower emissions than any climate change policy over the last few decades. And it’s achieved these changes in a way that the Earth Day movement itself has been struggling to do for half a century.

With people staying indoors to prevent the virus from spreading any more than it already has, skies have drastically cleared of pollution as the halting of industrial production and vehicle traffic has sent nitrogen dioxide levels plummeting. A vast number of flights have stopped running altogether — nearly 8 in 10 worldwide to be exact. Carbon emission from the burning of fossil fuels is heading towards a record 5% decrease, wildlife is starting to return to newly clean waters and animals have responded to human absence by roaming unoccupied city streets. A law has even been passed in Shenzhen, China banning the sale and consumption of wild animals. And crude oil has become so worthless that ‘the industry would literally have to pay you to take it off their hands,’ (The Guardian).

Though these positive side-effects have paved the way for a new, disorientingly green reality, we must remember that it’s no real cause for celebration, that they’re due to a pandemic that’s leaving a great deal of devastation in its wake.

‘This isn’t the way we would’ve wanted things to happen,’ says former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy. ‘God, no. This is just a disaster that pointed out the underlying challenges we face at the moment.’ In fact, what’s most concerning, is that it took such drastic circumstances to set in motion environmental improvements like this.

As McCarthy explains, there’s no denying it’s the worst possible way this could have come about and the situation very clearly illustrates how unsustainable our ‘normal,’ everyday activities are for the planet, how badly they’re impacting natural processes on the Earth.

And, despite the best efforts of environmentalists around the world, of Gen Z activists, of scientists striving to find solutions to our rapidly deteriorating globe, we were still undoubtedly headed towards a point of no return.

However, it does look like we’ve been given a second chance. ‘We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the Coronavirus and the existential threat — and even deeper emergency — of climate disruption,’ UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the BBC. ‘The shutdown has brought to light the sheer size of the task ahead and the world will need to work together.’

The hope is that on the other side of the pandemic, society will be more inclined to act with precaution, to not immediately undo all of the positive environmental side-effects that will have transpired, to appreciate that taking small, independent measures to change our way of life does indeed work.

‘You wonder if people will want to go back to what it was like before,’ says McCarthy. ‘The pandemic has shown people will change their behaviour if it’s for the health of their families. This has been the lost message on climate, that it’s a human problem, not a planetary problem. We have to show you can have a stable environment and your job, too.’

Primarily taking place online, this year’s Earth Day will be unlike anything in history. Participants will acknowledge that the outcomes triggered by Coronavirus perhaps could have happened by now, had we not taken our foot off the peddle after the movement’s initial success back in 1970 when it began.

So, with it being obvious that returning the world to its pre-pandemic settings will very quickly wipe out any of the environmental benefits of lockdown, a key question is posed: do we have a green recovery? Will we seize this opportunity to create jobs in renewable energy, for example? To make coastlines more resilient to climate change? We simply won’t get another shot at this, so only by focusing on a global green recovery will we stand a chance at sustaining a safe and healthy future for everyone – taking the sustainable route is what will prevent any further crises and ultimately save lives.

The pandemic has acted as a grave reminder that our existence on Earth is incredibly fragile and it’s been a serious wake-up call from Mother Nature to do things right in the future.

A wake-up call we would be completely foolish to ignore.

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