Earth Day was started in 1970. Then, it was mass activism in response largely to oil spills. It inspired environmental protection laws in the United States such as The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In conjunction with Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring, it launched the environmental movement.
The theme for this year’s Earth Day is climate action. Within the field of environmental politics, there is a concerted effort to maintain attention to the problem of climate change in the face of a pressing global pandemic (see my prior posts on corona in Rwanda). Media coverage makes many think that the latter must be more pressing than the former. I have been maintaining in my talks that not only should climate change and COVID-19 be considered of equal importance, but they are indeed mutually constitutive.
Climate change creates refugee flows. We see this with the desertification of Africa, e.g. Sudanese farmers and pastoralists seeking land and resources across the border in Chad. Bangladeshi flood victims have spilled over India’s borders, increasing Muslim-Hindu tensions. In my familial Washington state, the coastal indigenous Quinault community is seeking relocation compensation due to nearby sea-level rise. Such displaced populations would find it extremely challenging to follow public health advisories. We see this in refugee camps across the globe. Forced migrants face increased difficulties in social distancing, hand washing, wearing masks, etc. It is just not logistically possible for them. This has been starkly demonstrated among Syrian refugees living in refugee camps across the Middle East. Displaced populations are more likely to spread COVID-19 and suffer pre-existing health conditions that make them the most vulnerable to its effects.
In turn, corona restrictions may be improving air quality in the short term, but I would argue that this silver lining may not last. As an informal consumer of social psychology research, I would guess that the brief good news about air pollution will simply ease our collective anxiety about global warming, and, thus, our commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The good news about air pollution during COVID-19 might even relax some countries enough that the net amount of emissions may actually be higher in this upcoming five-year period, as government officials scramble to make up for lost economic activity while they peer up at (temporarily) clear skies. As pollution rates rise again in the coming years, this could exacerbate climate change drivers of forced migration.
Amid these dual concerns about both corona and climate change, my colleagues and I at the University of Rwanda’s Center for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management made this Earth Day video to present different aspects of climate action. My contribution concludes the video (starting at 41 minutes) and I discuss the gender aspects of climate change and conclude with some concrete individual actions.