COVID-19 lessons for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day

COVID-19 lessons for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day
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Tens of millions of Americans took to the streets 50 years ago — on April 22, 1970 — to demand ramped-up environmental protection in the face of choking smog in cities across the country, fouled water ways (including the drama of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire) and a terrible oil spill that blackened the California coastline near Santa Barbara. These gatherings came to be known as Earth Day and signaled the launch of the modern environmental era in America. 

Many 50th anniversary Earth Day events had been planned across the nation for this week, offering a moment to reflect both on environmental advances that have been made and the challenges that remain, such as climate change. These celebrations have now been cancelled — though some are hosting virtual festivities — and overshadowed by the worldwide battle to contain the COVID-19 virus. Likewise, conferences to coordinate global action agenda on critical issues including biodiversity (in China), conservation (in France) and climate change (in Scotland) have been postponed until next year.

While the COVID-19 emergency has pushed climate change and other environmental concerns to the margins, the experience of battling the pandemic may provide new insights into how to marshal public support in other circumstances where warnings by scientists have faced initial skepticism — and then required more extreme measures to make up for lost time.

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The response to the virus and the engagement of the public in that response were dangerously slowed by a view advanced by some that the risks were distant and unproven. But delay and disregard for science has a price. Indeed, COVID-19 has become very real and tragically personal for many individuals and families. One has to hope the same level of damage from climate change in terms of human loss and economic distress will not be required to spur a serious response to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere 

The fact that the harm from climate change only emerges over decades and is widely diffused over space as well as time, makes it hard for people to feel personally threatened or imminently at risk. But despite this difference, there are still vital lessons to be drawn from the COVID-19 response.

First, data and statistics matter and can help to tell a story especially when the enemy cannot be seen. What has proven scary in the COVID-19 case is the sharp spike in the number of people testing positive and falling ill. We have all seen the graphs and learned how essential it is to “flatten the curve.” Similar education of the public will be required on climate change. As my Yale colleague, Tony Leiserowitz, has demonstrated, people need a clear and compelling explanation of the threat followed by a call to action.

Second, to be successful, the policy response must be comprehensive and the public must be engaged in a way that makes sense to individuals. In the current crisis, people are showing that they are much more willing to make sacrifices when they understand the logic of what they are being asked to do. It has been important in the COVID-19 context that all of us have been given both red lights indicating what we should not do, and green lights that specify what we should do. Notably, we all know that we must avoid contact with others and we should wash our hands frequently. 

Environmental policy in general and climate change strategies in particular have long been focused on telling the public (and the business world) what not to do. A successful response to climate change will require a much greater focus on the green lights and incentives to drive innovation and inspire the entrepreneurs and creative talents across our society to deliver a transformed energy foundation for our economy. 

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We need not just carbon-free sources of electricity, but also better batteries and storage technologies, smart grids and smart appliances, and improved energy efficiency. As my Nobel Prize winning colleague Bill Nordhaus has argued, this shift calls for a move away from a regulatory emphasis on government mandates toward broader use of economic incentives and price signals that inspire individual behavioral change and industry-scale investment in innovation.

Third, rigorous scientific analysis and trusted expert interpretation of the facts are critical. This reality has long been a problem in the climate change context. Climate science has been so bitterly contested that common analytical foundations have been hard to establish. The pandemic makes clear that an effective mobilization in response to the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions will require a Dr. Fauci of climate change to emerge, someone who can offer a trusted perspective about scientific facts while navigating the political minefield surrounding them.

Fourth, the pandemic has demonstrated the need for a combination of top-down leadership and bottom-up mobilization. Similarly, we need both high-tech breakthroughs as well as low-tech personal behavioral change. Our climate change action plans have relied too heavily on federal interventions, although the value of engaged mayors, governors, corporate leaders and everyday citizens has become increasingly evident. And just as the virus has hit some communities harder than others, equity concerns in the climate change context should steer us to pay attention to the communities, industries and individuals whose circumstances will be most jarred by the energy transformation required to combat it.

Finally, the economic peril of COVID-19 got Republicans and Democrats in the Congress to work together like no other issue in a generation. With the American public’s wellbeing on the line, each party had to compromise and put aside partisan grandstanding. Similar flexibility and a spirit of give-and-take will be required to deliver a successful response to climate change.

So let’s mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a commitment to bring the learning from the difficult COVID-19 experience to the climate change battle. While the threat may not seem as immediate or as stark, the debate over what must be done to avoid reaching a crisis point may seem eerily familiar.

Dan Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University and the editor of the recently released book, “A BETTER PLANET: 40 BIG IDEAS FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE.” He served in various senior roles at the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s and 1990s and as Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection from 2011 to 2014.