On the first Earth Day 50 years ago, I was one of 20 million Americans who took to the streets to demand that leaders protect our environment. We were activists — many reluctant, others accidental, and some dyed-in-the-wool purists — united as unlikely allies. We had different agendas, but one common purpose: to make powerful people listen. And we did. Before that first Earth Day, there was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act. Citizens acted — and politicians followed. That day saved lives.
A half-century later, on Earth Day 2020, we can’t march, rally, or fill the streets because of stay-at-home orders to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But COVID-19 has given us greater reason than ever to organize and fight to connect the fragility of our planet to the fragility of life itself.
Make no mistake, there are people dying from COVID-19 who were more vulnerable to this pandemic because of climate change and carbon pollution. The preexisting conditions that make us more likely to die from the disease are “the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution.”
But the long-term parallels between this pandemic and tomorrow’s gathering storm of climate crisis are more clear.
The climate crisis is already expected to rob us of a quarter-million lives a year from everything from malnutrition to malaria. Direct annual costs of health impacts alone could easily approach $4 billion a year by the next decade. The financial devastation of climate-change-related disasters has increased 150 percent, costing the world $2.25 trillion. It’s projected to grow exponentially if the world stays on today’s unsustainable trajectory.
Yes, climate change is a threat multiplier for pandemic diseases, and zoonotic diseases — 70 percent of all human infections — are impacted by climate change and its effect on animal migration and habitats.
This moment in life — social distancing in full effect — is inseparable from this moment on Earth. Spending Earth Day inside, separated from one another, has made many of us think harder about what we do with the time we have. It’s made us value science, and understand the real meaning of decisions made or deferred.
Flattening the curve of one pandemic has given proof of concept to the fact that when lives are on the line, people everywhere will mobilize. But what anyone today wouldn’t give to turn back the clocks to December and January and mobilize earlier, before tens of thousands of lives were shattered by COVID-19. We had the facts. We had the warnings. We even had the playbook to respond. How costly were a few weeks of inaction?
Indeed, how costly the years of inaction that have been lost battling on the climate crisis? Just as in today’s pandemic, progress has been halted by finger-pointing, denial, replacing real science with junk science, misinformation, and flat-out lies, elevating political hacks instead of scientists and experts, refusal to work with allies and even adversaries, and leaving states and cities to fend for themselves. Sound familiar? It’s no coincidence that the same president who called COVID-19 a “Democratic hoax” referred to climate change as a “hoax invented by the Chinese.”
You could just as easily replace the words climate change with COVID-19; it is truly the tale of two pandemics deferred, denied, and distorted, one with catastrophic consequences, the other with even greater risk if we don’t reverse course.
Here’s a wake-up call. Until the coronavirus crisis, every major nation was on track to increase emissions this year. We have been moving backward. We will be at the “nine years left” mark to take the long-term significant steps recommended in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change three years ago. Time is running out: less than nine years to avoid climate catastrophe.
But there’s time to act — and opportunity if we do. If the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic is costly today, the cost of climate inaction will match — if not exceed — our current expenditures, which is why the next administration must act with urgency on day one. It’s not a choice between economic recovery and climate action; solving the climate crisis is the engine of our economic future.
The solar sector could account for 22 million jobs by 2050, energy storage could support 4.5 million workers, and wind energy could constitute 1.5 million jobs if the world reaches 100 percent renewable by 2050. That means more jobs in energy not less: a jump from 21 million in 2015 to 35 million in 2050. What are we afraid of other than avoiding a health and economic catastrophe and creating the economic transformation opportunity of a lifetime?
Today, I miss seeing my children, my grandchildren, and my friends face to face. I have friends who have tested positive, and others who have died from this disease. But I can’t roll back the clock on the pandemic and make stubborn leaders listen. We still have that power on the climate crisis — the same way we did 50 years ago. It requires nothing less than a World War II-style mobilization to wage and win the effort to achieve a net-zero carbon economy. During this time of social distancing, I’ve thought of the elderly COVID-19 survivors who remembered they’d been through worse. During World War II Americans would conserve vital war resources from rubber to nylon, saying to each other, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
That’s the mindset needed today, with one caveat: If we act now, the solutions aren’t sacrifice. The solutions make us healthier and more prosperous.
This Earth Day, we are staying at home to save lives from a crisis. But every one of us can take action to prevent the next one. Enlist in this fight so that this is our last Earth Day spent inside. Enlist so that next year, in the battle against the climate crisis, it finally feels like the world is winning.
John F. Kerry, cofounder of World War Zero, was US secretary of state from 2013 to 2017.