Earth Day 2021: What We Can Learn From the Past Year

A look back at the past year and lessons from the pandemic that might help in solving climate change.

Sarah Fecht
April 07, 2021

In honor of Earth Day on April 22, the Earth Institute has a variety of great events and stories lined up for you throughout the entire month of April. Find out more here and here

a researcher sits on the ground looking at a mound in the distance
Sarah Giles, a PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, makes geological observations in the outback of South Australia. Photo: David Lankford-Bravo

As we go about celebrating Earth Month and Earth Day, it’s worth reflecting on how far we’ve come since last year’s Earth Day. A year ago, we were a month into the pandemic and I remember foolishly pondering whether there might still be Earth Day events in person. Little did I know that we’d still be isolated after more than a year filled with fear, tragedy, loneliness, frustration, and boredom. At times, it has seemed like the pandemic was too big to solve and that it might never end.

It has been a dark year, but this Earth Day, the future looks brighter. Vaccines were developed faster than most experts would have previously imagined, and more than 107 million Americans have been vaccinated. Experts caution that we still need to be careful, but there is hope that we might safely gather in small groups for the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but I have quite a few friends and family members that I’m looking forward to seeing and hugging as soon as possible.

How did the world achieve this seemingly miraculous turnaround so quickly? And what can we learn from this success that can be applied to solving complex environmental problems like climate change?

The pandemic and climate change have a lot in common. Last March, Elva Bennett, a senior research staff assistant at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, summarized the similarities in a powerful blog post. “Both crises start with experts issuing warnings about big invisible monsters and end with catastrophic consequences that are nearly unstoppable by the time they can be seen and felt,” they wrote. The post goes on to detail problems with government leadership, funding shortages, science denial, and a desire to stick to our normal routines despite the recognized dangers of doing so.

I recently checked in with Bennett to see what they think about the pandemic response over the past year, and any big takeaways that might give us hope for solving climate change. Here’s what they said:

I think the biggest takeaway from the pandemic response is how quickly international cooperation and well-funded research solves problems when it is not fettered by partisan politics and profiteering companies. The knowledge and ideas that will mitigate and solve the problems of our time, both public health and environmental, are just sitting in scientists’ heads. The success of the rapid vaccine trials shows what happens when these scientists receive the funding that they ask for from the government, plus actual public interest and support. The pandemic has provided all of us with a reference for what an unmitigated global crisis looks and feels like. I am hopeful that this inspires people to trust scientists, support climate research, and demand meaningful government action to address the climate crisis.

Robin Bell, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, thinks that the pandemic has in some ways brought out the best in humanity. Last August, in an opinion piece for Undark, she noted that billions of people have taken measures to stop the spread of the virus, and that the pandemic has allowed many of us time to re-evaluate our daily activities that can be harmful to the planet.

“Like COVID-19, climate change is affecting us all,” she continued. “It is already devastating communities, impacting public health, and taking a toll on economies. And it is exacerbating disparities, with poor and vulnerable populations being affected the most. But the same tools that we have sharpened during the pandemic — a willingness to engage with scientific literature, the will to take action, a sense of global connection — can be used to help address the health of our planet.”

Jeffrey Shaman, who studies climate change and infectious diseases at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, takes a less optimistic view, noting a lack of collective action plus political partisanship, dismissal of science, and general failure to keep the number of cases under control.

He pointed out that countries that fared better than others were the ones that had planned ahead for infectious disease threats and managed a unified and evidence-based response to the pandemic — countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, and Australia. The main lessons we can extract for dealing with climate change, according to Shaman: “We need governments and the people to recognize the threat of climate change, even if they personally don’t have first-hand experience with its adverse effects. And we need to develop the procedures, laws and international accords needed to combat it now, not when we’re under water.”

To Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, one positive note has been the private sector’s response — by rapidly developing and producing vaccines, collaborating instead of competing, and altering supply chains when necessary. The pandemic “has also shown that ingenuity and innovation can often disrupt our assumptions about what is possible,” he said.

COVID-19 has exposed many of the same vulnerabilities that climate change will also exacerbate, and has revealed opportunities to build resilience, added Schlegelmilch. “Adding redundancies to the cost of doing business, re-localizing some means of production, and acknowledging the inequities in our response are all experiences from the pandemic that we can use to inform our approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

Like Shaman, Schlegelmilch feels more pessimistic about the early government response, political polarization, and lives lost due to agenda-driven politics. To him, there is a lesson for scientists in all of this: That even though science is critical, by itself “it is often not enough to generate the kinds of actions we need to see in the face of the challenges we confront. We need to appeal, from a place of scientific knowledge, to the incentives of politics, business, and basic human psychology.”

Similarly, Steven Cohen, director of the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University, noted that the pandemic has underlined the disconnect between scientific experts and policy makers. “Political leaders and scientific experts must be better connected than they are today, or we will see a constant stream of sustainability crises for decades to come,” he writes. “We need professionals who help managers and policymakers understand science and technology and help scientists and engineers understand organizations, political and economic reality.”

Cohen finds encouragement in the fact that Earth Institute educational programs are churning out sustainability professionals who can serve as translators between scientists and decision makers — including graduates of the two programs that Cohen directs, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy, and the Master of Science in Sustainability Management. Programs like these are giving students the tools to transform science into real-world solutions.

We hope that our Earth Month activities help you get informed, involved, and inspired to help press for large-scale change, too. Happy Earth Month!

To help advance the work of our scientists and experts working on our most pressing issues, please consider supporting the Earth Institute and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory today. You can also learn more on our Earth Day website.