A Crisis Mentality
On April 12th, 2021, I drove two hours northeast of my home in Portland, Maine, where I stood in line for an additional two hours to receive my first COVID-19 vaccination dose. Despite the commute, and despite the unexpected wait time, I couldn’t stop smiling. I knew how lucky I was to have this opportunity, just a year after this devastating disease went...viral? (oof, bad joke). I refused to take it for granted, especially when so many people around the world are anxiously waiting to receive their own vaccines.
The fact that we have a single, highly effective vaccine option, much less multiple highly effective vaccine options, is crazy to think about. From an April 2020 National Geographic article: "Considering the history and science behind making these drugs, 'a year to 18 months would be absolutely unprecedented,' one expert warns." Before COVID, the fastest a vaccine was developed (from viral sample collection to license) was four years.
And yet here we are. So how was it possible?
In part, it’s because we agreed early on, on a global scale, that this pandemic was a dire emergency, a public health crisis. As such, it demanded an emergency response. It required the best scientific minds in the world to work in partnership to create safe and effective vaccines and treatments to combat it; it required policy makers to make difficult and divisive decisions, enacting regulations that have been heartbreaking to so many of us, even when we understood how critical they were; it required each of us as individuals to take action—wear masks, maintain physical distance from those we love most in the world, isolate ourselves at home—not just to protect ourselves, but to protect our families, friends, and communities. Of course, there have been mistakes and failures along the way, but there have also been incredible successes. Multiple effective vaccines available within a single year, that’s an overwhelming success. And it happened in part because the world was focused on a collective goal—find solutions to combat this pandemic.
And at the end of the day, words matter.
Climate Change vs. Climate Emergency
But ok, why on earth am I waxing eloquent about our global pandemic response in a blog post that was originally intended to honor Earth Day, you might ask? [Side note: Happy Earth Day, everyone!]. In part, it’s because I get easily distracted these days and it’s hard for me not to compare everything in life to COVID (please refer to Earthwatch’s December 2020 blog post Finding Clarity in the COVID Chaos as further evidence). But more seriously, it’s because the concept of deploying emergency response protocols has direct relevance to how we choose to combat the greatest environmental challenge humanity has faced.
This month, major news outlets around the world announced their commitment to proactively use the term “climate emergency” in their coverage around climate change. In announcing this decision, journalists referenced the January 2019 Ripple et al. report, published in the journal BioScience, titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” (notably, one of the five co-authors is none other than Earthwatch Board Member and Head of our science committee, Dr. Bill Moomaw). More than 11,000 scientists from over 150 countries signed this report when it was released. Since then, thousands more have added their signatures. This collective decision by news outlets, some of whom had already shifted their language from climate change to climate crisis or climate emergency years earlier, is in direct alignment with overwhelming scientific evidence and expert guidance.
A hurricane blasts Florida. A California dam bursts because floods have piled water high up behind it. A sudden, record-setting cold snap cuts power to the entire state of Texas. These are also emergencies that require immediate action. Multiply these situations worldwide, and you have the biggest environmental emergency to beset the earth in millennia: climate change.
Mark Fischetti — Sr. Editor, Scientific American
Terms such as ‘climate crisis’ are not new; however, our understanding of the severity of this crisis, and the relevance of an emergency response, has certainly evolved. In the April 1989 edition of the Earthwatch Magazine, titled “Weathering the Climate Crisis,” Earthwatch Associate Editor Mrill Ingram describes the heavily debated and muddied issue of ‘global warming.’ But, she says, “beyond a basic agreement that the greenhouse effect exists...no one agrees how local climates will change.”
At that time, scientists were grappling with limited datasets, armed with a growing but incomplete understanding of how the environment would change as a result of human impacts, including our rising carbon emissions. But the public was eager to understand the issue, and many looked to scientists for more information (whether or not they chose to believe that information is another story). Ingram argues that an emergency response was not necessarily the right one at that time, as there wasn’t enough scientific information available to know which type of response would make sense and how it would address what was already understood to be a growing threat.
But throughout the more than 30 years since that magazine was published, we’ve amassed an overwhelming amount of scientific data to inform our understanding of the ways in which humans have directly impacted the environment. Today, we aren’t just predicting future environmental threats—we’re observing them in real-time. The impacts of the climate crisis have already been more devastating than many scientists thought possible. And unless we bring our collective resources to bear—responding to the climate crisis with our full emergency response—the worst is likely yet to come.
Be the Climate Champion You Wish to See in the World
Fifty-one years ago, 20 million Americans peacefully protested from coast to coast on the world’s first Earth Day, underscoring the intense public demand for environmental regulation and accountability. One year later, in 1971, Earthwatch was founded. Through its unique citizen science model, Earthwatch empowered individuals to take collective action through scientific research and conservation. By pairing scientists with non-scientists in research locations around the world, Earthwatch filled a unique niche—it provided an outlet for people from all walks of life to study and conserve the natural world.
This year, we celebrate Earthwatch’s 50th anniversary. The world has changed considerably since our founding in 1971, but one thing has remained constant throughout: the power of individuals coming together to tackle complex issues. This is the heart of the Earthwatch mission, and it needs you more than ever.