Unprecedented Opportunity for the Environment and Science

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th Earth Day, half a century since the original Earth Day in 1970 that turned environmentalism into a mainstream global movement. All of us eagerly waited for this occasion, as huge commemorations were planned around the world with as many as one billion people expected to participate. Environmentalists planned to hold massive rallies akin to the ones in 1970 and prepared to launch various programs such as the Great Global Cleanup, a campaign of volunteering for cleaning up litter. In the wake of 2019’s strong climate change activism, Earth Day 2020 was supposed to be one more watershed occasion for our struggle to safeguard the health of our planet.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, a virus new to mankind, is a huge and completely unexpected shock to the world system. It has upended societies and turned the lives of billions upside down. Social interaction has been curbed dramatically, as people are keeping physical distance from others and staying home. Most of the activities we spent years planning for Earth Day 2020 have therefore been cancelled. Earth Day organizers have done their best to adjust by turning Earth Day commemoration into a largely digital affair, with much success.

The real challenge, however, has just started.

Earth Challenge 2020, launched last month, is one of the biggest environmental campaigns scheduled to be held in heel of Earth Day 2020. The largest citizen science program ever, it is working to mobilize millions of people around the world to collect data on environmental conditions, so the data can be analyzed and combined to provide a clearer picture on planet’s overall ecological health. Basically, the Earth Challenge campaign has been formulated with the goal of getting ordinary people to monitor threats to the environment in a coordinated manner.

The coronavirus pandemic throws a curveball in our path. Environmental monitoring is still possible while maintaining social distancing, but the fact remains that it will have to be done under very challenging circumstances.

Additionally, the pandemic and the disruptions to society it has wrought actually diminish the intended usefulness of the Earth Challenge campaign. We are supposed to be making observations about current environmental conditions so we can better understand how human activity is impacting the Earth, but those very conditions have changed momentarily as the virus brings most human activity to a halt. For instance, air pollution, generally one of the biggest environmental problems, is one of the main topics pursued by Earth Challenge but lockdowns around the world have suddenly made the air much cleaner, which is only for a short period. The problem for Earth Challenge is that if we study the environment during the pandemic, we will be presented with a picture that does not entirely reflect how the environment normally is. To put it simply, we cannot monitor threats to Planet Earth when these threats have gone into hiding for the time being. 2020 is therefore the worst time to hold this ambitious environmental science program as we planned for it.

This need not be the case if we reevaluate our goals. We have good reason to, because the spread of COVID-19 presents the world with an incredibly unique opportunity. By dramatically suppressing many human activities, the pandemic has provided Planet Earth with an enormous relief. As a result, our environmental dreams have come true for the time being. The world has struggled with air pollution. Now, much of that has vanished. Animal habitats have been constrained by human trespassers. Now animals are wandering everywhere freely in the relative absence of humans. Human activity has been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere non-stop, while we have yet to find out how to stop ourselves. Now, carbon dioxide emissions all over the world have plummeted.

If we conduct a scientific study of the environment now, we will see something extraordinary – a world that we have been fighting to create for half a century.

It is extremely important to study this world while it lasts. It will inform us of how the environment reacts to the cessation of manmade disturbances, as well as how the strategies to mitigate these disturbances can be implemented. It will provide us with enormous insights into environmental dynamics and how the natural environment and human society interact. As we fight to create a healthier planet, observing how things are now will allow us to better know what our desired planet will be like and how we can create it.

This makes 2020 the most important time for environmental science ever. All those who spent years preparing for Earth Challenge may not have gotten what they were planning for, but instead they have something very, very special. Because of COVID-19, the world’s largest citizen science program will not be able to investigate much how the natural environment generally fares but will be able to discover more about how it works and how certain changes impact it. It is a rare opportunity that has come our way.

Of course, citizen scientists and professional scientists alike face challenges in carrying out their work because of COVID-19, but it is very important that we overcome them in order to avail our great opportunity. Now is the time for scientific endeavor to become more active, not to slow down. That shouldn’t be too difficult for environmental science. Right from the beginning, Earth Challenge 2020 is meant to largely consist of activities happening in the telecommunication sphere and in the great outdoors. Volunteers are supposed to explore and examine the natural environment, such as wildernesses and even just the air around them, which they can easily do while staying away from people. Then they are to upload the data they collect onto digital networks for others to view. Communicating with others remains vital and can be done virtually, which is how all social interactions are being done wherever the fight against the virus is in full gear. The Earth Challenge platform has created a variety of digital resources for use by citizen scientists. We have to rapidly innovate to get our work going, as the impacts on nature of our responses to the pandemic are likely to be short-lived, although, as of late June, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be just starting in the developing world and is seemingly making a comeback in developed countries.

2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges, but there is a lot of benefit we are capable of getting out of it in the field of scientific research. As a result, Earth Challenge 2020 has acquired more significance than we could ever have imagined.

Shahzeb Khan is environment journalist, writer, student of Earth sciences, and director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/). He tweets at https://twitter.com/justinshahzebkh.