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Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, as confirmed around the world, have been reduced drastically. Of special note is the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) along with fine particulate matter.  In Beijing, residents can see the stars at night, an impossibility, even a few months ago. Also impossible a few months ago, fish can be clearly seen swimming in the canals of Venice. Yes – Planet Earth is experiencing a reprieve. 

But, these outcomes give us little comfort. They come with a tragic cost from an invisible enemy. An enemy that has caused a global pandemic. We can however learn about earth’s ability to begin healing as we plan for the future beyond CoVid 19. 

Earth Day was initiated on April 22, 1970. I can remember the euphoria of this recognition – with millions (20 million in the US alone – 10% of the population) marching around the world. I can recall clearly watching the symbolic act of students burying a brand new yellow Ford Maverick in San Jose, California.  I can also recall being among more than a thousand like-minded students at Simon Fraser University and deciding then and there that I will enter the field of environmental science.   

In 1970, the planet was home to 3.7 billion people. There were about 200 million cars on the road and oil consumption was around 45 million barrels a day. Today there are over 8 billion people on earth along with 1.5 billion cars. Meat consumption has almost quadrupled and fish stocks are being depleted. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased from 280 parts per million in 1970 to over 420 ppm today thereby warming the planet. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by over a million square miles. Sea levels are rising faster than most predictive models resulting in ‘sunny day flooding’ from unusually high tides in many cities around the world. In 1970 it was rare to see wild fires that burned more than 100,000 acres. In 2019, fires burning in California, Australia and even Siberia have ravaged tens of millions of acres. There are many more stark examples but – the main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. Over the past 50 years we have demanded more and more from Planet Earth and we are paying the price all over the globe. A case could even be made that this current pandemic is one such price. 

Despite the mountains of evidence, we are still seeing significant denial of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. How can anyone make sense of these kinds of ludicrous decisions?  

We already know how deadly denial, delay and even defiance, can be as we review the responses to the CoVid crisis. In fact, the analogy between the two crises is eerily precise. First there is denial of the problem, followed by deadly delay. Then it’s argued that it’s too costly to the economy to tackle the problem. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself’ became the mantra that greatly exacerbated the problem (of CoVid) itself. Both crises show, in stark reality, the threats of catastrophes arising from the clash of nature and modern human activity.

The two crises are also related in other ways. High levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from Covid-19, according to some recent research. For example recent research from the Martin Luther University in Germany shows that, of the coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78% of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted. The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced mostly by diesel vehicles, along with weather conditions that can prevent dirty air from dispersing away from a city. Short-term exposure to nitrogen oxides can lead to irritated respiratory systems, while prolonged exposure can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This lung damage can, in turn, exacerbate the attacks by any respiratory virus – including CoVid-19.  

For now, environmental degradation and climate change issues have been temporarily pushed aside. However, it is vital that we acknowledge, that these issues will be orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and more are even more worrying but harder to predict.  

For these crises we need good leaders who embrace a vision for the future. Certainly we know that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess. As such, we need to remove politicians who impede progress by denying problems identified by good science, even exist. That must be the pledge for this 50th anniversary of Earth Day