That’s the take this Earth Day from former Secretary of State and onetime presidential contender John Kerry, who was a participant in the inaugural Earth Day 50 years ago.
He described that Nixon-era march, well before social-media sharing but timed to the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency and other initiatives, as his first moment of activism after arriving home from combat in Vietnam.
The onset of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic from the novel coronavirus has “made more people value science, flattening the curve has given proof of concept to the fact that when lives are on the line, and as people understand that their daily decisions are connected to the lives of others, people everywhere will mobilize,” Kerry said in an interview with Our Daily Planet.
Kerry, who also penned an Earth Day op-ed for the Boston Globe, said on MSNBC that a “baseline of truth” to advance scientific recommendations around COVID-19 and climate change is needed, but has at times proved elusive from the Trump White House.
“…It’s no coincidence that the same president who called COVID-19 a ‘Democratic hoax’ referred to climate change as a ‘hoax from China,’” Kerry charged in the Our Daily Planet interview.
For its part, the Trump administration has helped usher in relief for small businesses and individuals hard hit by the economic slowdown from the pandemic.
President Trump, in a release recognizing Earth Day, said: “We are working hard to remove trash from our oceans, accelerate cleanups at Superfund sites, and revitalize communities through our Brownfields program. Additionally, I was proud to announce earlier this year that the United States will be joining the Trillion Trees Initiative launched in January.”
The acknowledgment comes at a time when the Trump administration has relaxed some longstanding environmental regulations citing coronavirus in the short term, and cost to businesses over the long haul.
“…[T]here’s a story of hope in the climate crisis that is the opposite of what you have to do to stop the spread of COVID-19. You had to basically shut down much of the economy to stop this disease,” Kerry said in the interview. “On climate, it’s not a choice between economic recovery and climate action; solving the climate crisis is the engine of our economic future, period. That’s the great part of it: we end up healthier and create more jobs. We just have to get going.”
The parallels between the coronavirus and the climate crisis
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.
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.
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?
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.