22 April 2020

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day: A teachable moment

Posted by AGU Staff

[Editor’s Note: This morning, AGU sent the following email to its members. We wanted to make sure everyone received the information, so we posted it here too.]

By: Robin Bell, Board President and Brooks Hanson, Executive Vice President, Science

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year occurs as humanity is working to control a global pandemic. A solution will depend critically on partnership and cooperation among virologists, epidemiologists, health care providers and health officials, government leaders at all levels, and of course us—the world citizens acting in the public interest and trusting science and each other internationally.

There are many parallels with and lessons for the health of the Earth, well beyond how air and other environmental pollution is exacerbating the disease. We are the caretakers of the planet, and the scientists who study Earth, the environmental, and space serve in part as the planet’s epidemiologists. This science clearly shows humanity’s broad impact on our planet: All parts of earth’s surface environment, atmosphere, oceans, and major chemical cycles are affected if not dominated and controlled by our activities.

This understanding of our planet has also provided enormous benefits for humanity, including resources for our daily lives, weather prediction, resilience from hazards, precision navigation through satellite systems, and much more. The science also reveals that much of Earth’s environment, ecosystems, biota, and resources are not healthy despite our deep connection to and dependence on their health. The threats and damage have been building, but we know enough to recognize the problems as well as what is required for improvement. Critically, as with the coronavirus pandemic, the solutions require even broader global partnerships, cooperation, and trust in science and each other. Our shared pandemic experience today is thus a teachable moment for what will be required to ensure our planet’s health, which in turn sustains our future.

The theme of this Earth Day is “climate action,” and action is required. The increasing perturbation of Earth’s climate by society’s actions is harming many other parts of Earth’s systems, including many that provide broad benefits to humanity. Unlike the course of a virus, there isn’t a peak and then a rapid decrease as immunity develops or transmission is limited; rather, the harm and effects continue to grow and then persist because much of the carbon we emit accumulates in the atmosphere and remains for centuries.

But like the spread of the virus through our communities, delayed actions mean that the risks increase, and 50 years has been too long for the planet already. Indeed, AGU’s recent updated position statement on climate change is titled, “Society must address the climate crisis now.” It begins: “Immediate and coordinated actions to limit and adapt to human-caused climate change are needed to protect human and ecological health, economic well-being, and global security.” These actions require global partnerships grounded in science and across the sciences, with society, and rooted in mutual trust. Together, we can enable a bright economic future with climate action. The economic crisis caused by coronavirus illustrates the danger of a failure to act on the scientific data and evidence.

Achieving the full potential of global partnerships is hard and will require significant changes and growth in the scientific community and across society. Science must continue on a path toward openness and sharing at all levels. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that humans are part of a global system. Open global science, where information, data, training, and resources are supported and shared, is essential for the future health of the Earth and humanity. Openness also includes expanding diversity in science so that science in enriched and engagement is robust worldwide. Science and society must also grow in how they work together meaningfully at many scales. AGU is working to develop deeper community partnerships now through programs such as the Thriving Earth Exchange and Voices for Science, but these types of efforts will need to be expanded greatly, and the participation by scientists must by meaningfully recognized and rewarded.

Across society, we are learning the effects of ignoring data, not acknowledging early warning signs, and failing to invest in preparedness. Our shared healthy planet and global population depends on trusted scientific information, mutual support, and collective action. This 50th anniversary of Earth Day thus provides Earth’s citizens and governments with some unexpected and hard lessons for what is needed to improve the health of the planet. We must apply these lessons globally and continue to do so well after this public health crisis has past. The health of the planet and the prosperity of humanity demands it. We believe that AGU and the Earth and space science community are up to the task and ready to build a brighter future together.

*****

For Earth Day, AGU is highlighting diverse examples of the ways the Earth and space science benefits humanity and how global partnerships and engagement with scientists and people of all ages can provide and lead to solutions.