Earth Day 2020: What You Need to Know and Do to Save the Planet — Before It's Too Late
The coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill, sickening and killing millions and rocking the global economy.
But that’s not the only massive threat we face.
Climate change — rising global temperatures caused by carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels — is endangering humanity and life as we know it.
As scientists have predicted for decades, climate change is making wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and flooding more frequent and more destructive than ever. It’s melting ice caps and causing sea levels to rise.
The cleanup from these climate-fueled disasters is costing taxpayers billions — and the bill is just going to get higher in years to come.
So what’s the answer?
The world must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 to avoid the most disastrous, irreversible consequences of an overheated planet, which will destroy life as we know it.
In honor of Earth Day this year, PEOPLE spoke to experts on climate action who talk about all the solutions out there — what governments, corporations, and individuals can do to save the planet.
Every single one of them said the same thing: we must act now.
Read their advice on what we should know and do to make a difference each day when it comes to protecting the planet below — and pick up the April 27, 2020, Inaugural Earth Day issue of PEOPLE for more.
Don’t believe people who say change is impossible. The coronavirus has led to factory shutdowns, flights being canceled, and people changing their habits — it’s had a terrible cost. But there was a brief period where the world reached the carbon emission goals of the Paris Accords. That proved it can be done. In New York, they just banned single-use plastic bags, and now we bring bags with us — and is that so horrible? It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, people will never do this.’ But people adjust. It’s not rocket science. Everyone can do their part.
Dr.Katharine Wilkinson, lead writer ofDrawdown, the 2017 New York Times bestseller about climate solutions; editor-in-chief of The Drawdown Review: Climate Solutions for a New Decade in 2020; andco-editor of the upcoming book, All We Can Save:
Shout it from the rooftops: We have solutions. And they’re almost never just climate solutions. Solutions that reduce or eliminate our use of fossil fuels also curb air pollution, the number one killer on the planet. Solutions that protect and restore ecosystems are bio-diversity solutions. There are so many solutions that can create jobs and agriculture practices that make farms more resilient, so farmers continue to have viable livelihoods, and we all have food.
Solutions from The Drawdown Review include: Reducing emissions to zero by using an array of green energy sources including wind, solar and geothermal power; advancing energy efficiency and transportation alternatives; reducing food waste and adopting plant-rich diets; stopping deforestation; supporting natural “sinks” that absorb and store carbon, such as forests, wetlands and regenerative farmlands; and improving use and disposal of chemical refrigerants, “which are potent greenhouse gases,” it says.
Jacqueline Savitz, Chief Policy Officer of Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization:
Save the oceans — and our food supply — with clean energy. The carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere is making the oceans sick. It’s causing them to become more acidic, which is bad news for animals that rely on calcium carbonate to build their shells and their skeletons — clams, oysters, lobsters, shrimp.
The only way we can stop this ocean ecosystem collapse is to stop burning fossil fuels. It’s not rocket science. It involves things like shifting to clean energy, particularly solar energy and offshore wind energy. If we restore our fisheries, we can feed a billion people on the planet a seafood meal every day in perpetuity.
Change your ride. What’s also important for oceans is the electrification of the auto fleet. It’s being done — just not quickly enough. Right now, a lot of our electricity is generated from coal, oil or natural gas, which are still fossil fuels. When we start generating electricity with solar and wind and our cars are electric, we won’t need that fossil fuel anymore.
Don’t “drill, baby.” This administration has proposed expanding offshore oil drilling to both coasts, the East Coast and the West Coast. That’s carbon that we don’t need in the atmosphere, and it’s absolutely the opposite of the direction we need to be going.
Laurie David, environmental champion, Oscar-winning producer of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), executive producer of The Biggest Little Farm (2018) and author of the upcoming book, Imagine It! Shifting Habits For a Better Tomorrow:
Change your mindset. We all need to change so many of our habits and our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, but this will only happen when we start living with a real shift in the priority we put on protecting our planet. How much meat are we eating? Can we ditch the big plastic laundry detergent jug and start using alternatives (thin sheets that require no plastic and less shipping emissions)? Change your mindset, change the world.
Rethink the paper you’re using. Take a good look at the paper tissue, toilet paper and paper towel brands you are using. Many of them get an F for failure to use sustainable practices and still come from old-growth forests. Switch today to recycled paper products. Put a nice bowl of hand towels in your kitchen instead of paper towels! Retrain your whole family to grab these instead.
Upgrade old appliances. Switch to Energy Star.
Ditch plastic water bottles. The water from your tap has more regulations on it than what comes in a plastic bottle.
Sophia Mendelsohn, Chief Sustainability Officer at JetBlue Airways, which will make its domestic flights carbon-neutral this year:
Focus on the big picture. As moms, as business women, it hurts to see our communities unprepared for a shock COVID-19 and the climate crises. Pandemics should drive more focus to the importance of environmental issues, not distract from it because they can be intertwined: deforestation and wild animal trafficking helped lead to infectious diseases and as it gets hotter and wetter because of climate change, some diseases can spread more easily. But we can make changes and put ourselves back in control. One small way to start?
Shop brands that share your environmental values. If you’re spending your money with a brand, make sure you agree with them. Maybe there’s a brand you love. Let’s say you want to go on vacation. You want to take a flight. Make sure that the carbon from your flight is offset. (For every ton of its carbon emissions, JetBlue will buy a ton of carbon credit that invests in conservation projects to reduce emissions.) At JetBlue this will include funding solar panels and wind farms. (And vote!)
Astrid Caldas, Senior Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Be Prepared. The current coronavirus pandemic has shown us what can happen if we do not properly plan and prepare for known risks. It has also laid bare the fragility of our systems to severe disruptions and confirmed our nation is capable of taking swift, decisive action if there is sufficient political will. Climate change impacts are already here in the form of more intense hurricanes and wildfires, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme heat, and rapid loss of biodiversity. Many of these impacts will be irreversible. We must act urgently by taking early actions to prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming a reality.
Rachel Licker, Senior Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Hold Government Accountable: One of the most important things people can do is hold government accountable. From city council members and county commissioners all the way up to the president, let leaders know this issue is important to you and demand they use the latest scientific data to implement a plan that will reduce emissions and strengthen resiliency in communities already being harmed by climate change. Join up with a community group organizing for change that will be impactful and equitable. You can also take individual actions, such as shifting your financial investments away from fossil fuels, adjusting your thermostat a degree or two or investing in a programmable thermostat, swapping out old lightbulbs for energy-efficient ones, reducing meat consumption, and keeping your car tuned up.
Rose Marcario, President and CEO of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, which gives 1 percent of its profits to environmental charities through 1% of the Planet (co-founded by Patagonia owner Yvon Chouinard):
We’ve passed the tipping point— now we have to stem the tide of future damage. I’m optimistic about working with nature to regenerate our agriculture system, and I’m committed to protecting our public lands from mining and drilling — they are huge carbon sinks. I’m also determined to find climate solutions that build local economies and save the world for future generations.
Janet Redman, Director of the Climate Campaign for Greenpeace USA, an environmental activist organization:
The number one thing we can do as a society to stop the climate crisis is to stop burning fossil fuels. That means no more oil, gas and coal. But I’m not asking you to stop driving your car or running your air conditioner. I’m asking you to help change the conversation. The reality is that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in the last 30 years.
Let’s put our energy where it’s most needed. Let’s vote out the politicians who put corporate profits before human rights and vote in champions for climate justice. When casting your vote for everything from city council to president, make sure your candidate of choice says ‘Yes’ to a Green New Deal and ‘No’ to oil, gas and coal CEOs. Make sure they’re invested in creating jobs that restore clean air and water rather than pollute it and ending the $20 billion in taxpayer dollars that go to subsidizing fossil fuels every year.
This is the conversation we need to have as a country. Not about our individual carbon footprints, but about how we are going to create a world beyond fossil fuels. How we are going to not only avert the massive crisis in front of us but create a more equitable and prosperous society in the process. We need your voice in that conversation. Head to greenpeace.org/usa to join us.
Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding director of The 51 Percent Project, which helps people and businesses to participate in climate solutions; senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University:
Be part of the solution. People really need to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Am I doing everything I can? Am I using my network? I’m really great on Twitter. Am I doing that enough? Can I get all the yoga instructors at Kripalu to talk about this at the beginning of every class, not just on Earth Day?’
Use your power as a consumer and investor to make changes. People say, ‘Well, I don’t have enough money to do anything about climate change.’ Have you looked at your 401k lately? Have you changed your energy bill? You can opt in to green power now. It’s your money. You might actually be part of some sort of a union or pension fund or 401k, or alma mater that operates by a set of principles that has to do with their bottom line.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, hip-hop artist and youth director of Earth Guardians, a global conservation organization:
What happens over the next five or 10 years is going to shape the next several hundred years of life on Earth. We have a very small window to turn things around. I think people need to be fully informed of the urgency we face. And it can’t be written off as an environmental issue — it’s going to affect every aspect of our lives from our access to food, and clean water and education to our economies and global politics.
Start small but think big. Using metal straws over plastic straws is not going to clean our oceans. Going vegan and riding a bike instead of driving a car is not going to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. But the small things we do every day do have a ripple effect. At the same time, there’s so much more we need to do. We need systemic political and economic change — and whoever reads this, we have so much power to create that.
Nikhil Advani, director, climate, communities, and wildlife at the World Wildlife Fund:
Pay attention to extreme weather. I’m from Kenya, where we’ve been dealing with pretty severe drought for the last two decades. But when I was there in November, there was really severe flooding — in Djibouti, which is just north of Kenya, they got two years’ worth of rainfall on a single day. So, I think those extremes, the drought, the flooding, are things that people really need to start taking notice of.
Climate change threatens world wildlife. When a human community loses its entire harvest of crops for the year because of drought, they cope with it by entering protected areas to get water, which can be very harmful to species. The climate crisis is not just about polar bears and coral reefs. Parrot species are being affected because of increasingly severe hurricanes. Amphibians are in big decline all over the world in part due to chytrid fungus. A lot of these things are being made worse by climate change.
Kate Marvel, climate scientist and writer:
Climate change isn’t someone else’s problem. It’s here, and it’s already affecting people. The average temperature of the planet has risen about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. That doesn’t seem like much, but we’re already seeing the consequences: rising sea levels, melting ice, more severe heat waves, heavier downpours, and worse fire seasons.
We know exactly what’s causing the planet to warm up. Scientists have considered every factor that has changed climate in the past: natural cycles, volcanic eruptions, changes in the Earth’s orbit, fluctuations in the Sun’s output. None of these can explain the changes we’ve measured. What can? Well, carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, and human activities have increased atmospheric CO2 levels by over 45 percent since the Industrial Revolution.
We’re not doomed! It’s true that unless society takes drastic action to curb CO2 emissions, we’re in for catastrophic consequences. Coastal cities like Miami will flood regularly. We’ll see more devastating forest fires. Heat waves could kill thousands or millions. But the worst-case scenario is completely avoidable! We’ll need to transform the way we generate and consume energy. But this transition will create millions of jobs and drastically improve health outcomes.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center
We have amazing and inspiring solutions in our hands. That includes measures that can be done at scale, by companies like Apple which is already 100 percent powered by clean energy, or countries like Bhutan, which plants so many trees that they take up more carbon than they produce, or organizations like the World Evangelical Alliance, which is putting solar energy on one of every five facilities in the next five years. Climate change isn’t a giant boulder we’re trying to roll uphill all by ourselves: there are millions of hands on it.
Janti Soeripto, President and CEO of Save the Children:
Stand up for our planet and children’s futures. Climate change is a grave threat to children’s survival. Children’s lives are more sensitive to the effects of climate change. The climate crisis magnifies inequality and poverty for children and their families.
Neil B. Weissman, dean of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Neil Leary, founding director of the Center for Sustainability at the college, one of the greenest in the U.S. and one of the first 10 to become carbon neutral:
Higher education has a special role to play. Success in addressing climate change will require broad cultural change. Individual policies and actions make a difference, but they must be underpinned by broader understanding. All educational institutions play a role, but college and university campuses are the place where fullest understanding of the complexities of climate change can be achieved. We offer deep knowledge on the scientific dimensions of climate change, its economic and policy consequences, and its implications for our collective values. And, especially through education in the liberal arts, how to pull insights from these important areas together. That’s what it will take to chart our path. It won’t be simple.
At Dickinson College, where we teach, our faculty have incorporated climate change into our students’ learning in courses offered in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, and signaled its importance with a sustainability graduation requirement. Our aim is helping students to be critical thinkers and identify credible information on climate change.
Join with others to call for change. While each of us should reduce our personal carbon footprint, we can’t solve the climate crisis alone. It requires system-wide changes to create a low or even zero-carbon society that is climate-resilient. We must change the political and economic calculus of public officials and business leaders with this message: inaction or insufficient action on climate change is hazardous to your careers. We should work with organizations active on climate change to make this message loud, clear, and credible. Demand government and private sector action to shift us quickly to a low carbon, climate-resilient society.
At Dickinson, faculty and students work with many groups to promote and plan for climate action by our municipal, county, and state governments. We also join non-partisan alliances to build support for national and international action. Seek out groups and initiatives for climate action that align with your principles. Join them, give them your time, lend them your voice, and give them your money if and as you can.
Advocate for climate action where you work. Whether you work for a for-profit business, a not-for-profit organization, or a public agency, your place of work can demonstrate that meaningful climate action is feasible and beneficial. Many businesses and organizations are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency, switching to non-fossil energy sources, building climate resilience, and marketing products that reduce carbon footprints and lessen climate risks.
Dickinson College, where we work, has cut gross greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent since 2008 and this year reached zero net emissions, saving money in the process. Don’t let your workplace miss the waves of innovation that are transforming what we do and how we do it to create a world that emits little to no carbon and is climate-resilient. Those who lag will fall behind competitors and struggle to survive.
Gina McCarthy, President and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):
Get involved in your community. Attend a local town meeting, hearing, or event — that’s where the messiness, anxiety, drama and magic of change happens. You’ll see the heartbreak of climate crisis — parents worried about their asthmatic child, residents concerned about the next hurricane, seniors dealing with heat and young people demanding a better future. But you will also see the good things that are happening every day. People working together to invest in clean energy, to build resilience in our cities and coastal communities, to clean up the air, to buy clean cars and demand clean buses for our kids, to rethink our food systems and ensure that no community is left behind. You can advocate for positive change in your own neighborhood.
Suzy Amis Cameron, author of The OMD Plan and cofounder of MUSE School in Calabasas, California:
Focus on food. One of the best things you can do to take care of the planet is to eat climate-friendly, plant-based food.
Evaluate your habits. As many of us shelter in place, there’s a daily opportunity to look at the resources we use and save money: use less single-use plastic, make bulk purchases, reuse and recycle more. And save on your utility bills by saving water and using less electricity and gas or propane.
Don’t feel defeated. I see this in friends, which I can really understand, so in those moments, after you’ve felt your feelings, dance for the planet with a living room dance party, or pump yourself up by watching The Game Changers (Netflix or iTunes), on world-class athletes. Sometimes a little escape and revitalization is essential. We’re in this together.
- With reporting by DIANE HERBST, CAITLIN KEATING and SUSAN YOUNG