Earth Day in the age of coronavirus cautions us to encourage pro-climate behaviors

Earth Day in the age of coronavirus cautions us to encourage pro-climate behaviors
© Cristina Mittermeier

It isn’t coincidental that we’re experiencing the unprecedented global impact of the coronavirus at the same time as Earth Day, which holds climate action as its central theme this year. We can often feel disconnected and separate from the planet we live on. But this year, that connection is deafening.

Never in our lifetime has the world been so aware of an issue that directly ties back to our environment and treatment of nature and wildlife, and we may never again be in a position where this impact is felt by everyone, everywhere. This is a moment we are so rarely given, in which we can find the motivation to align our actions with our values and to connect the dots among individual life choices, politics, economics and corporate action. 

There are principles that unite us every day – our love for clean air, our water, our children. In today’s COVID-19 landscape, we have seen the world come together in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus to protect those we love and now, more than ever before, is an opportunity to fight for what unifies us and bring a long overdue conversation about the environment to the forefront.


2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day – a milestone that is particularly momentous when examined through the lens of the coronavirus. This global health pandemic has forced a low-carbon lifestyle upon us and has delivered clear skies and clean air. If we can commit to continuing this pivotal behavior as we recover, the results could deliver at least $26 trillion in net global economic benefits and generate 65 million jobs worldwide.

Now is the ideal time — a serendipitous one perhaps — to commit to a continued and strategic version of our forced behavioral changes. This will not be the last virus or global pandemic we will have to survive with climate change and our continued degradation of nature. By remaining steadfast in our commitment to protecting those we love, now that we have seen that it is possible, we can let our planet (and ourselves) breathe and continue to witness a more than 4 percent drop in global carbon emissions.

The current pandemic is a symptom of a sick planet, the result of decades of ignoring conservation messages. This isn’t the first time nature has sent us a warning signal, but it may be our last chance to listen and take action. Ebola outbreaks were also directly linked to wildlife trade and connections can be found in regards to the emergence of HIV/AIDs, Zika, SARS and MERS. This is why we must ban the commercial trade of terrestrial animals, including in markets.

In a recent essay, Dr. Russ Mittermeier, chief conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation, notes that humans have become a super-abundant species, as well as a source of food for potential predators, parasites and pathogens. The less diverse systems become, the more we become targets, unbuffered by an array of other species in a healthy ecosystem.

The coronavirus was caused by a lack of action to protect biodiversity on our planet, he argues, and the only surprising fact is that this pandemic took so long.


The solution is changing our approach to conservation communications. Leveraging the power of digital technology and visual storytelling during this era of social distancing will catalyze change in the world’s approach to how we foster communities to encourage climate action. While many people are feeling isolated, we need meaningful connections in digital spaces to inspire an approach to climate change that has the same sense of urgency as the coronavirus. After all, Earth Day is going digital this year.

This idea of a communication revolution translates to consumer and political campaigns. Campaigns can be made accessible to a larger audience and to those without an understanding of complex science, by arming people with solutions and equipping them to be qualified to take action. As one example, the successful “For A Strawless Ocean” campaign is on track to remove approximately 15 billion plastic straws from circulation across more than 50 countries. Plastic straws are a tangible, familiar item that serves as a “gateway” to understanding the larger issues of ocean health and deadly impacts of plastic pollution.

However, the plastics industry is now putting forth a narrative that is not scientifically supported. The virus has been found to live on plastic for two to three days, yet the industry argues that public health requires us to suspend or overturn city bans on plastic bags. The industry’s fight against bag bans isn’t new, but it’s preying on fear to gain traction despite a lack of evidence about the threat of reusables. All of the progress that the anti-plastic pollution movement has made in the last five years has been undone in the last three weeks.

A cascade of scientists weren’t heard when they warned us about the interconnectivity between personal choice, policy and economics and plastics, wildlife and climate change. When will policymakers listen to science? Will we let coral reefs completely disappear by the next generation? How much longer will we let inaction sustain this human tragedy before we let science lead policy?

To truly change behaviors, we have to do more than threaten that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. We have to do more than hope others will solve our climate change crisis that is firmly upon us. We need real action, as another pandemic is just around the corner, and we may not be able to prevent it from harming those we love and hold dear. 

Climate change is solvable. We’ve seen this firsthand in this time of physical distancing, as we witness the planet heal. We’re listening closely for the first time in many years. Let’s work across divisions to look at the planet through our children’s eyes and come together to protect those we love.

The coronavirus has allowed us to see the future. Let’s not lose this moment.

Dune Ives is the executive director of award-winning Lonely Whale, an incubator for courageous ideas that drive impactful and persistent change on behalf of our ocean. She is an activist and keynote speaker recognized as a leading influencer in conservation communications.

Cristina Mittermeier is one of the most influential conservation photographers in the world. Cristina is the co-founder and Managing Director of SeaLegacy, a National Geographic contributing photographer, a Sony Artisan of Imagery and the editor of 26 coffee table books on conservation issues.