Earth Day: Lens on Pandemic

Two months ago, my colleagues and I began thinking about an article to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, contrasting environmental conditions of 1970 with today. We never guessed how the world could change in a few weeks and that the changes in that short time would, in some ways, dwarf the slower changes of the last five decades.

With much of America on lockdown to avoid the coronavirus, with ever grimmer numbers of illnesses and deaths on the news each day, with Earth Day falling in the middle of what could be one of the deadliest weeks of the pandemic, a call to action around environmental issues seemed, at best, tone deaf.

Yet the occasion of Earth Day provides an important lens for viewing the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in how we see the shifting relationship between science and society.

Delaware Water Gap
Delaware Water Gap

Our modern understanding of human-environmental interactions no longer clings to the old model of polluting factories and endangered whales. While the corona virus may not seem like an environmental issue, it is very much an existential social and ecological problem.

Echoing the high stakes and mind-numbing complexity that we face with problems like climate change and mass extinction, a pandemic requires that we develop broader institutions and systems that bring together science and social action.

This is a particularly difficult time for these sorts of responses. Since the first Earth Day there has been a breakdown in how credible science is now being treated in the public dialogue.

As we know from studies of climate denial, acceptance of scientific evidence has become subject to partisan leanings. Perhaps it’s not surprising that polling shows an overlap in those groups that deny the science of climate change and those that dismiss the severity of the coronavirus.

Global Climate Strike 2019, Academy contingent sporing “Science Matters” shirts

In some ways, the use of science in western cultures has become a victim of its own success, routinely — and for the most part, often invisibly — controlling natural systems and forestalling or minimizing major catastrophes. Given this comfort level, it is hard for most of us to believe that anything could really, fundamentally change our way of life.

For this reason, decades of warnings that environmental problems — especially climate change — could cause irreversible damage have been largely ignored. Similarly, for years experts have warned about the ways a pandemic disease could change our lives.

These warnings also, until very recently, have been ignored. Even now, as the death toll from COVID-19 skyrockets in the U.S., there are segments of society who believe national mobilization is an overreaction, that things really won’t get that bad.

This raises two issues in how science and society interact, and both must be addressed if we are to avoid the worst possible outcomes of CORVID-19 and the worst outcomes of other socio-ecological crises yet to come.

We must address the growing tendency for government (and by extension, the broader public) to dismiss or minimize scientific expertise, reduce the role of science in governing, and cut funding for research. In a world that is increasingly faced with complex technoscience challenges, these trends are untenable. Important elements of the current pandemic crisis can be traced to a breakdown in science and scientific thinking in the highest governmental operations, and hence in how the public viewed scientific information.

At the same time, the scientific community has proven itself ill-equipped to translate, communicate and apply scientific knowledge to complicated socio-ecological problems. Witness that for 20 years or more we have understood the long-term implications of climate change and the need for action to address it. Yet, scientists have been reluctant to enter the public dialogue and are temperamentally unable to make unqualified statements on key issues.

COVID-19 should serve as a wakeup call to scientific institutions and the scientific community that reticence is no longer an option. If we don’t get better at framing and promoting science-based solutions to science-driven problems, we will become irrelevant to the most important issues of our time.

By Roland Wall, Director of the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research

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