Opinions & Observations: How we should think about Earth Day in the time of coronavirus
Earth Day 2020 marks yet another day of uncertainty and hardship for humanity amidst COVID-19.
While cities and nations around the world scrounge for healthcare resources, pass urgent legislation to shore up battered economies, and mourn those who have passed, there is a silver lining for our environment. While it does not outweigh the tremendous losses we have suffered, this provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between planetary and human health.
As people across the globe stay at home and economies temporarily decelerate, emissions from industries and public life have drastically reduced, resulting in environmental improvements. For instance, there has been a noticeable change in air quality. Last month, Los Angeles had its longest stretch of days with “good” air in generations. In Delhi, India, the sky has transformed from its usual acrid gray to clear blue, temporarily alleviating their air quality public health crisis. Here in New York, researchers at Columbia University found that carbon monoxide emissions over New York City declined more than 50 percent below typical levels last month.
Studies now project that global carbon emissions will drop overall this year by roughly 5.5 percent – one of the largest single-year reductions in recent history.
When we emerge from this horrific pandemic, we must re-double our efforts to create a more sustainable city – and, more importantly, become intentional. To keep the 5.5 percent figure I cited earlier in perspective, in order to meet the goals set out by the Paris Climate Agreement that would keep our global temperature rise to 1.5°C, we would need to reduce our emissions by 7.6% each year. We can start with what’s on our dinner plates. In 2016, the UN Environment Programme identified agriculture and livestock production as large contributors to climate change that simultaneously increase risk of infectious disease.
This is one of the primary reasons I advocate for a plant-based diet. Plant-based nutrition reversed my Type 2 diabetes as well as the chronic diseases of hundreds of other New Yorkers through NYC Health + Hospital/Bellevue’s Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program, but it also has the potential to reduce risk of public health crises and support Mother Nature. We can’t revert back to our old practices once the pandemic is over. Instead, we must implement solutions that preserve the environment while making us healthier. Reducing our meat consumption, changing harmful federal guidelines that promote the overconsumption of dairy products, and requiring more sustainable agriculture practices are all good places to start.
Of course, climate change’s relationship with public health demands more than a rethinking of our food system. We need to pursue sustainable changes throughout the many sectors of our society. These include efforts to create a more balanced transportation system by investing in innovative transit like Bus Rapid Transit, making all of our city more walk-able and bike-able, and ensuring that our vehicles, private and public fleets alike, are more energy efficient. As outlined in the City’s Roadmap to 80×50 Report, we must also accelerate the transition of building heating and cooling away from natural gas and oil and towards renewable energy and sustainable design options like Passive House design. As we rebuild our economy, the pursuit of clean energy and other sustainable efforts should merit special attention, as these strategies greatly strengthen our potential to mitigate climate change in the coming decades.
Extreme heat, natural disasters, and water-borne and vector-borne diseases are just some of the catastrophes that await if we do not act now. These issues require large-scale, collective action; and the sooner, the better. David Wallace-Wells put it best in a recent piece for New York Magazine when he noted that the pandemic is merely a preview of our climate change future. As demonstrated by the coronavirus, public discourse and action necessitates proactive solutions now to head off the worst-case scenarios, not reactive measures later after those scenarios have come to pass.
COVID-19 is rightfully the international focus right now, but the same global struggles we faced before are present today and will remain a reality even when the world returns to normalcy. Climate change is a present and growing threat to all life on this planet, and threatens to create even greater public health emergencies down the line. This virus has turned our lives upside down, but it is also allowing us to re-evaluate our societal priorities. Public health and planetary health aren’t mutually exclusive aspirations – if anything, the coronavirus pandemic has underscored just how inter-related they truly are.
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