How to mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary during COVID-19: online

Children used push brooms to sweep up litter in a New York City park during Earth Day 1970. This year, people seeking change through climate action will look for ways to do it online.

In the face of a pandemic, Earth Day 2020 is going digital.

COVID-19 has rightfully seized the world’s attention, and many around the globe are on lockdown. But being stuck at home doesn’t mean we can forget the long-term struggle to save the environment and fight global warming.

Groups marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were planning in-person events, but they had to switch gears quickly to comply with the new reality of social distancing. Commemorations of the first Earth Day, held in April 1970, will still take place, but organizers will be using the digital space to keep people engaged, informed, and inspired about the climate change fight. Instead of speeches, tree plantings, and protests, there will be online film festivals, Zoom webinars, and three days of livestreaming.

The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and has been described as “the planet’s largest civic event.” As explained on the Earth Day 2020 website:

Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis — oil spills, smog, rivers so polluted they literally caught fire.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10% of the U.S. population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet. …

The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts were created in response to the first Earth Day in 1970, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many countries soon adopted similar laws.

Earth Day continues to hold major international significance: In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day when the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was signed into force.

The inspiration for the original Earth Day came from Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin after he witnessed the effects of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Long interested in environmental issues as both Wisconsin’s senator and governor, Nelson wanted to harness the energy of campus protests against the Vietnam War and turn it into a national force for environmental action. A website outlining Nelson’s actions to launch Earth Day explained it further.

Nelson struggled through the 1960s to get his colleagues in Congress to take ecological concerns seriously. Nelson spoke out early and often against the Vietnam War and ballooning defense spending, which he saw deflecting funds and focus away from domestic crises. …

Reflecting on the empowering effects of campus activism, Nelson proposed a day when citizens nationwide would host teach-ins to raise awareness of environmental problems. His proposal was met immediately with overwhelming support. The national media widely broadcast the plans for this so-called “Earth Day” and Nelson’s office was flooded by enthusiastic letters.

But while Nelson established a small national office to offer support to the thousands of grassroots efforts, he firmly rejected a top-down organization. Instead, “Earth Day planned itself,” he later reflected. An estimated 20 million Americans, young and old, gathered on April 22, 1970, to confront the ecological troubles in their cities, states, nation, and planet—and to demand action from themselves and from their elected officials.

It worked. All of those millions of Americans formed huge crowds to listen to speeches from lawmakers, activists, and entertainers. They picked up garbage along roadsides. They swept up litter in city parks. Earth Day 1970 became the first day of what came to be called an “environmental decade,” with passage of major environmental legislation at national levels.

The size of events ranged from small high-school assemblies to the hundred-thousand participants who created a “human jam” on New York’s Fifth Avenue and flocked to the open-air carnival in the city’s Union Square. Tens of thousands congregated in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. Colleges across the nation held teach-ins, such as Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor, turning Earth Day into a several-day event.

Each Earth Day event nationwide was some combination of festival, political and academic discussions, outlandish theatrics, and coalition building. The common act on April 22 was the speech. Earth Day presented the opportunity to speak at length about local and national environmental problems, and audiences discovered the will and expertise available in their communities to face the challenges ahead.

Earth Day 2020 organizers invite you to find a local digital event out of the hundreds scheduled worldwide–or create your own. Instead of in-person protests, speeches, tree plantings, teach-ins, and nature clean-ups, there will be Zoom webinars, online environmental film festivals, and a three-day live event with training sessions, performances, and appearances by environmental activists and politicians. Searching for #EarthDayAtHome will be a good way to find activities.

Some of the nation’s leading environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have their own digital events and offer plenty of environmental tips. The Earth Day Network issued daily challenges throughout April to allow people to take climate action from home. NASA has a special Earth Day Toolkit for students learning from home.

We’ve never needed Earth Day more. During his time in office, Donald Trump has tried to reverse the gains in climate action made by his predecessors. Now he is using the COVID-19 pandemic to gut environmental regulations, rolling back auto fuel efficiency standards and other rules. A story on Common Dreams spells it out.

Just last week, the EPA announced it would indefinitely suspend enforcement of environmental health standards in direct response to a request from the American Petroleum Institute. Trump’s EPA is currently racing to complete a half dozen other significant environmental and public health rollbacks over the coming months but has not extended deadlines on public comment. In some cases, the administration has even refused requests to hold virtual public meetings.

The Trump administration can block public meetings, but we can combine our voices by meeting online. Earth Day Live will hold a three-day livestreaming event from April 22-24 featuring celebrities, musicians, politicians, scientists, and youth activists. Among the many well-known participants are author and activist Bill McKibben, co-founder of, and the Rev. William Barber, who gained national attention as leader of the Moral Mondays movement. The 72-hour event has three aims over three days: climate strikes, amplifying the voice of indigenous leaders and youth climate activists; divestment from fossil fuel companies; and political engagement, with an online youth voter registration drive. You also can search for a local live-streamed event in your area.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has motivated students across the globe to fight against climate change with her weekly school strikes for climate, had to switch gears. She has organized a series of weekly webinars titled “Talks For Future” each Friday featuring climate experts such as scientists, activists, and journalists to carry on the spirit of the climate strikes online.

The 17-year-old also has changed her weekly strikes each Friday to #ClimateStrikeOnline:

While you’re stuck at home, learn more by watching a film about the environment. The One Earth Film Festival is offering a virtual “mini film fest,” streaming films about climate action for the entire week of Earth Day, April 20-26. You can register for one or more free screenings (donations always appreciated, of course), watch a film in community online, then discuss with experts via live chat on Zoom. Featured films include some made by student filmmakers. Some museums also are streaming environmental films and hosting discussions, such as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Since so many are staying home to stay safe, automobile traffic has cut down considerably — and so has the amount of air pollution. These effects can be seen worldwide. According to a story in Johns Hopkins Magazine:

Seismologists studying planetary movement have reported less ambient seismic noise—the daily rumbles and vibrations of mass human transit—and Belgian scientists have observed the Earth’s crust moving less. Widely shared satellite imagery shows fewer cars on the road in China as a result of lockdown orders, prompting speculation about a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Satellite measurements of nitrogen dioxide show dramatic decreases of the dangerous gas over China and Italy.

The effect might not last, says Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

We know there are fewer emissions, so the air that we’re breathing outside is going to be cleaner than it would otherwise be. … In the U.S., where social distancing and stay-at-home measures are becoming more common, we’ve certainly seen fewer cars on the road, meaning fewer emissions from cars and lower concentrations of traffic-related pollutants than we’d otherwise see. Looking at PM 2.5 data from the February through April period from 2014 to 2020, we’re seeing really low concentrations of pollutants, but they’re not concentrations we haven’t seen previously. Pollutant concentrations are strongly governed by meteorology — how winds move things around, how sunny it is, and if it’s raining or not raining. …

With fewer cars on the road, there will be fewer emissions of CO2 from traffic, similar to their being fewer emissions of particulate matter. Compared to our normal lives, we’ll have lower CO2 emissions while we’re all working from home and basically not driving very often. And that’s good for the short term. But how that translates into future gains is kind of an open question. A one- or two-month drop in emissions, for something that has a 100-year lifetime in the atmosphere, is probably not going to change things all that much.

Instead, it gives us a window into what we could potentially do to mitigate climate change going forward.

Even with millions of fewer cars on the road worldwide, March 2020 was heading toward new levels of global warming.

We don’t have to choose between taking climate action and fighting COVID-19. There is evidence that increased air pollution might be linked to higher death rates of COVID-19 patients, as explained by The New York Times.

In an analysis of 3,080 counties in the United States, researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that higher levels of the tiny, dangerous particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the disease. …

The paper found that if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer Covid-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.

Better air and fewer COVID-19 deaths: That’s a combination that should appeal to everyone. It’s a start as we mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the fight against climate change.

It’s a reminder not only of how far we’ve come but also how far we still have to go.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 18, 2020.

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