On Earth Day, Connecting COVID-19 and Climate Change

Apr 21, 2020

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Today is the 50th Earth Day, a significant anniversary we will celebrate quite differently this year than in ones past. Instead of public gatherings, we will mark Earth Day individually at home and collectively online, as we continue social distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

It’s an auspicious moment to consider the relationships between the pandemic and climate change. 

Some commentators have noted that COVID-19 feels like an accelerated version of climate change. Both are global crises, backed by science, that cause widespread hardship and whose solution requires broad, collective action and scientific innovation. COVID-19 and climate change are both particularly contemporary phenomena, crises born of a connected world largely fueled by carbon-based economies.

While much is still unknown about COVID-19, whose impacts may not be fully understood for months, if not years, what is clear is that change is possible. Governments and people the world over have responded with dramatic reforms for the greater good. In all the pain, loss and fear of the current moment, this is deeply encouraging. 

In a matter of weeks, Canadians have nearly universally adopted concessions that would have been unimaginable in early March. Yes, there are government directives around social distancing, but also extensive voluntary cooperation by the public. In a matter of days, the impossible has become possible.

In this unsettling time, we’ve learned valuable things about ourselves that should give us hope.

We have seen that our actions do have an impact. Our province took serious measures relatively early to limit the spread and flatten the curve. So far, we have had no casualties and relatively low infection rates. 

In the current crisis, our adoption of social distancing is based on an understanding and acceptance of scientific information from the medical community. Our political leaders have done an excellent job of keeping us informed with daily briefings, and clear, coordinated directives. They have communicated what to do and explained how it helps. 

Along with facts, we are also motivated by values such as compassion and community. Hundreds of thousands of people in our province have made difficult, necessary changes to keep not just ourselves, but also our neighbours, especially our most vulnerable ones, safe. We have learned we can – and will – take care of each other. We will do the right thing for our households, our communities, our country and the world.  

We also see, like never before, how we depend on each other for survival. We also understand our vulnerabilities. The systems and lifestyles we took for granted? We know now how quickly and dramatically they can change. 

For climate advocates, this is encouraging. So often, those of us working for a greener future have been told that broad social change is not realistic or possible. COVID-19 shows that it is. People are willing to cooperate for the greater good when there is a sense of urgency explained by public education campaigns and accompanied by clear directives.

On this Earth Day, we have the opportunity to contemplate what the future may hold, and to reflect on the kind of society and economy we want to return to when the pandemic passes. 

What will our post-COVID-19 social and work lives look like? What changes have we made during this time that we want to continue when we return to some semblance of normal? What lessons might we glean from the crisis? And what opportunities for a better world do these highly unusual circumstances present? 

Crises create space for change.

The Green New Deal, the first piece of legislation put forth by Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is inspired, in part, by the original New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s massive, federal stimulus package to rebuild the American economy following the Great Depression. 

If COVID-19 is our generation’s Depression, in the wake of COVID-19, space has opened up for bold, ambitious policy and actions. In this unexpected, epic pause in business-as-usual, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to reconsider our current course, and to reset how we live our lives day to day, how our economy runs and where we are headed as a province and nation. 

While the current focus is, rightly, on protecting public health and keeping Canadian safe at home, the time to consider recovery will come. When it does, we need to be thinking about how to bring the economy back online without a corresponding rise in carbon emissions. Organizations in Canada and around the world have proposed many ways we can simultaneously pursue economic recovery and a low-carbon future. They are not mutually exclusive.

The World Resources Institute, in the U.S., is calling for clean energy tax credits, energy-efficiency incentive programs, and a move from diesel to electric vehicles.

In Canada, organizations such as the Pembina Institute are calling for support for jobs that can better withstand market swings. There is a push to make the economy more resilient to other crises, including those related to climate change, such as wildfires and floods. Retraining workers for lower-carbon industries has also been proposed. 

As Earth Day celebrates its golden anniversary, we can reflect on what we’ve learned, and what we want to do with that knowledge. The world has changed; that much is certain. We know that we have the desire and capacity to make meaningful change, both as individuals and as a society. We understand, like never before that we are vulnerable. And we have come to see that we can rely on each other to do the right thing, even if it is difficult, to make change for the greater good. 

Lizzy Gresh is executive director of The Gaia Project, a provincial non-profit with the mission to empower youth to take action on climate change through education. Gaia has been working in New Brunswick schools for over 10 years. Its programs, which are offered in French and English in all school districts, incorporate inquiry-based education, curriculum links and local action projects. 

  • I have been working on climate change for over 35 years; I believe that The Gaia Project has a piece of the puzzle that will help us solve it!

    George Dashner

    Past Chair of The Board of Directors

  • Education is a key component of our sponsorship priorities and this program (Trash Tracker) was a perfect fit.

    Kate Shannon

    Communications and Community Relations at Canaport LNG

  • I am humbled to be a member of the Gaia Board of Directors. It gives me an opportunity to give back to an organization that has given me and my students so many amazing opportunities and experiences. They have had a profound impact on me as an educator.

    Carolyn Barnhart

    Science Lead at Fredericton High School and Director at The Gaia Project

  • Climate change comes off as a complex subject to most, but The Gaia Project makes it approachable for students. When students feel empowered to take action, amazing progress can be made!

    Tanya Legacy

    Teacher at Moncton High School