Viewpoint: As Earth Day turns 50, COVID-19 points the way and the need for climate action

Karen Rubin, Columnist

Tornadoes this week swept through the South with windspeeds as high as 200 mph. 100-year floods are coming every few years. Record-shattering hurricanes. Unprecedented wildfires. Droughts. Locusts have attacked East Africa consuming whole fields of crops. Truly a list of plagues that with the coronavirus pandemic, ends with “killing of the first born.”

This year, on April 22, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It is as if Mother Earth is striking back.

That first Earth Day, in 1970, 20 million Americans (one in 10) poured out onto streets, the forests and seashores to demand an end to wanton pollution – these days, we would call it “environmental justice.”

By 1972, Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species acts and created the Environmental Protection Agency.

The following decades have been a series of small progress or stagnation (under George W. Bush), until President Obama put climate action into high gear with incentives to boost renewable energy and policies to reduce carbon emissions while achieving the historic Paris Climate Agreement signed by 175 nations and the EU.

All of that has been undermined in just three years by Trump who has defanged the EPA, made the Interior Department the agent for the fossil fuel and extraction industries, withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement and contradicted the United Nations, which recognizes environmental justice as key to mitigating global conflict, on every other international climate endeavor.

It is truly ironic that a global pandemic has demonstrated the impact of human activity by suddenly shutting down the human actions that have produced a pall in the atmosphere, trapping heat that has caused climate disasters and ecological change of such proportion as to change the habitability and sustainability of population centers.

The coronavirus pandemic that has forced a sudden halt to the economy actually poses an opportunity.

We now know we can change the patterns of work – we must in fact because other pandemics and crises are just around another corner. We now know we can do without a large portion of oil, gas and coal.

We now know we have the technology or can develop what we need for a clean, renewable energy infrastructure and a sustainable society.
Simultaneously, oil fracking has proved uneconomical – and interestingly, as I learned in New York Times, this isn’t recent.

Investors have been propping up the industry for years, well before the pandemic shut down transportation and industry. But this weekend, as the United States surpassed every other nation in the world in COVID-19 deaths, what was Trump concerned with? Negotiating with Russia and Saudi Arabia and OPEC oil cartel to reduce production not to benefit the environment, but to prop up oil prices hard-pressed Americans will pay.

On top of that, he made sure the fossil fuel industry got a $150 billion bailout from the coronavirus relief fund – money that could have been used to transition to developing bio-fuels and other renewable, instead of their expansion into fracking.

The United States is 5 percent of Earth’s population but generates 25 person of its carbon emissions. It also accounts for 25 percent of the coronavirus cases.

To me, that’s proof of oversized arrogance, willful ignorance and irresponsibility, a dismissal of the United States as a global citizen versus an island unto itself.

We have the opportunity to build back after the cornavirus crisis passes in a sustainable way – we already know how to build sustainable buildings, cities, mass transit; how to do agriculture sustainably and how to produce clean, renewable energy; how to use technology to cut down on carbon emissions. That’s how the stimulus money should be spent.
Climate protests have been among the biggest during Trump’s tenure. This year, we won’t be able to come out and stand together in numbers.

But as so many important events, celebrations and political campaigning these days, the 50th anniversary Earth Day will be celebrated virtually.

Greenpeace is sponsoring 72-hour Earth Day Live mobilization to bring lessons learned for the climate movement from the COVID-19 crisis to a national stage. (Sign up to join Earth Day Live livestream, from April 22-24,

“The COVID-19 crisis marks a turning point. We can choose to go back to a broken status quo, or we can choose to protect working people and frontline communities from this crisis and the climate emergency, not just a wealthy few. We can’t sit this one out,” writes Avery Raines, Digital Strategist for Greenpeace USA.

The Earth Day Network, which stands as the coordinator and torch-carrier for Earth Day, has set Climate Action as this year’s theme.

“The enormous challenges — but also the vast opportunities — of acting on climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary.

Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable,” the site states.

“Our world needs transformational change. It’s time for the world to hold sectors accountable for their role in our environmental crisis while also calling for bold, creative, and innovative solutions. This will require action at all levels, from business and investment to city and national government.

“As the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day approaches, the time is long overdue for a global outpouring of energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to create a new plan of action for our planet.

Earth Day 2020 can be the catalyst that galvanizes an unparalleled global collaboration.” (Check out the site,, for links to events.)

The climate crisis is an existential threat, albeit a slow-moving one compared to the devastating sweep of the coronavirus pandemic, but even more threatening, life-altering and permanent.

Pandemics are related to the climate crisis, helping to nurture and host novel germs, harbor insects that carry disease or destroy crops. And the question is will this government be as clueless, as willfully ignorant and determined to use a head-in-the-sand policy as it has in advance of a pandemic?

Share this Article