Earth Day Goes Digital

11:19 minutes

a colored image of the whole earth from space
Credit: NASA

Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, marking five decades of environmental actions, like community cleanup, planting trees, or marching in the streets. 

But this year, coronavirus has led to the cancellation of planned marches and large-scale events. Instead, many people will be participating in a digital Earth Day. Ira talks to Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network about what people can do to participate, parallels between climate change and coronavirus, and environmental action in the age of the Trump administration. 

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Segment Guests

Kathleen Rogers

Kathleen Rogers is the president of the Earth Day Network in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day– 50 years of action and organizing, whether that’s a community cleanup, planting trees, or marching in the streets. Incidentally, it’s also a special day to me, as it’s my personal anniversary, too. It marks my first story as a science reporter on that first Earth Day many years ago.

But– not about me. This year, coronavirus has led to the cancelation of planned marches and large-scale actions. So instead, many people will be participating in a digital Earth Day. Here to talk about that is Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network. She’s based in Washington, DC. Welcome, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN ROGERS: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: The theme for this year’s Earth Day is “Climate Action.” What are some of the things people can do while they’re practicing social distancing?

KATHLEEN ROGERS: Well, I think one of the ironies about the pandemic is that many of our activities were already geared for a digital world because we’re in 192 countries, and we have to prepare to send materials to people and get them engaged wherever they are. So we have a variety of actions depending on your demographic and station in life. So if you’re a teacher, and you’re doing online activities, we have downloadable history of Earth Days, work plans, and a number of other activities that you can conduct with your students, whether you’re K through 12 or even at the university level.

We certainly have dozens of petitions and opportunities for you to get engaged civically, whether it’s committing to vote or sending letters to your representative or your country leader. So we prepared for many things to go digital. Perhaps our most important digital campaign is Earth Challenge 2020, which is a group effort of the US State Department, the Wilson Center, Earth Day Network, and literally thousands of science groups around the world all join together to build the largest open source citizen science database in the world, which allows you to take a photo of either the sky or of plastic pollution and upload it to a map where you’ll see yourself and millions of other people participating.

But it has the twist that it allows you to take a civic engagement action in your own language and relevant to your own country. So that’s a big move for both the citizen science community and others to connect citizen science to civic engagement, and that is entirely digital.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’re really big on citizen science and engagement. But I’ve got to imagine because this is a special 50th anniversary day that you had all kinds of big plans and all kinds of celebrations that had to be scrapped. It’s got to be disappointing.

KATHLEEN ROGERS: It is. I think my inconvenience and sadness about the 50th anniversary is real, although tempered entirely about the worry and concern I have and people at Earth Day have about families, food, jobs, and survival. But this was a setback, both from a climate perspective and in our goal to build the world’s largest citizen science movement in the world.

IRA FLATOW: So do you think that spending Earth Day digitally will have the same impact as say, spending the day marching or doing a city cleanup?

KATHLEEN ROGERS: Well, a lot of those activities have been moved. So the Great Global Cleanup, which had almost 500 million people signed up to work on it, has been moved till September. And that’s sort of a knock on wood at this point. And of course, the fall marks a very politically active moment in the United States as well. So I think the knitting together of the movement is the point where it feels a little precarious because so many people have been revved up and excited about the 50th anniversary, which wasn’t just a day. It was months of action. But that will go on, just at a different time– maybe on our half birthday.

IRA FLATOW: On your half birthday, yeah. It’s interesting you bring up politics because it seems like quietly in the background of the coronavirus pandemic, the administration is rolling back a lot of environmental regulations that have come in effect since Earth Day and because, you know, of Earth Day.

KATHLEEN ROGERS: I mean, Earth Day is definitely credited with having started the modern environmental movement, and most of our landmark laws were passed in rapid succession after the first Earth Day in 1970. And the environmental movement, as nascent and new and ill-formed as it was back in 1970, really enjoyed a bipartisan– corporate, even– honeymoon that lasted a couple of decades. And since then, it’s been two steps forward, one step back, and then you have the climate change as a relatively new issue, at least in terms of activism in the last 20, 25 years.

But we have experienced lately a sort of new turn, where almost every part of the environmental protection fabric is being unwoven, and little by little, even under the cover of COVID-19, it seems to be continuing. And no environmental law has– or even process or regulation– has been left untouched. I do think and believe in human nature generally and our wisdom, so I think that you’ll see over time most of those important laws be regenerated or come back to life. But for now, it’s– we’re all super busy.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You think people are making little placemarks in their lives. You know, this is not on the front burner. Let’s put it in the backburner for a while, but we’ll get back to that.

KATHLEEN ROGERS: Yeah. And there’s certainly– people are drawing parallels left and right between the pandemic and climate change. And the question is, is now the right time to be talking about it? And there are certainly parallels. I mean, Earth Day was built on science. It was that bright line that everybody cross between thinking about environment as a conservation of species and National Park movement to one that was based on protecting human health. And it was that science of 150 years of industrial development, polluted air and dirty water, toxic exposure that drove 20 million people out on the streets to take part in that first Earth Day.

So is it a question of time, of drawing parallels, I think, around two issues? One, the belief in science and trust in data– that’s certainly a part of both coronavirus and Earth Day and at climate change and what I do for a job, and also the need to prepare for potential disasters. Both the virus and climate change are certainly two good big indicators that we need to be prepared.

So while we appreciate the news of cleaner air and clean water and of wildlife filling our now empty spaces and a definitely quieter world, and we all long to get back to normal, I think there’ll be a time when we can reflect on a cleaner, quieter world that we’re witnessing and experiencing and the need to heed the very clear warnings of the data we have and have had in our possession for years and the need to prepare, just as the pandemic taught us, that its life-altering capacity will be weighing on our minds and give us the sort of impetus to move forward.

IRA FLATOW: I want to play a clip from Dr. Ayana Johnson. She’s a marine biologist and climate activist, and she’s one of the forces behind a green economic stimulus plan that was unveiled in March. That proposal would create green jobs and accelerate the US’s transition off of fossil fuels. She and her team are pushing Congress to back this plan.

AYANA JOHNSON: This is going to go on for a while, right? Like, this pandemic– we don’t know when things will get back to normal or what the new normal will be. And so it takes time for these ideas to percolate into the policy, and so we just wanted to make sure that these ideas and solutions were on the table.

IRA FLATOW: What do you think about this idea, that even though we’re dealing with coronavirus, that the time to act on climate action is still now?

KATHLEEN ROGERS: It’s obviously weighing on everyone’s minds that we have to go back to normal, whatever normal will be. And the economy is critically important to every one of us, whether you’re looking at your retirement savings disappear, or you don’t have a job at all or know if you’ll ever get one back. So while it’s critically important not to let everything go, and we’re watching what’s going on with our laws and regulations, I do think that we will arrive very shortly at a time where we can start talking about how we rebuild the economy in a way that’s greener, more forward-thinking, more resource-conscious.

And so I don’t think it’s off the table, but I am also aware that for almost everybody in America, no one is sailing through this unimpacted. And I want to be very cognizant of that and cautious about talking about new taxation, new changes to the government when people might reject them wholesale. But if we slowly but quietly introduce some of these major concepts about how we rebuild, how do we create new green jobs, how do we stay on top as a global power but also as a more conscious and careful country, I think the time will come fairly soon.

IRA FLATOW: Are you surprised by how active the youth of the world are in this, considering that there are groups like Fridays for the Future and the Sunrise Movement and Greta Thunberg and people like that? I mean, they have really taken this on themselves.

KATHLEEN ROGERS: No, it’s really amazing, and because I’ve been in the environmental movement 25 years, I’ve seen multiple generations of young people come forward. We used to house many of them in our own office building, and we’ve seen this repeatedly. But I think this movement is different because there’s so many pieces and arms and groups engaged collectively in climate change. And I love that they have, it take no prisoners approach. I certainly was like that, and I can tell you might late teenagers, early 20-year-olds are like that themselves.

And so I appreciate what they’re doing. I know that a lot of them put themselves out there. They sit in front of the UN, like Alexandria Villaseñor and Greta did for years. And so that’s really amazing, and it’s also age-appropriate that they’re putting themselves in a situation where they’re both having to juggle school and being teenagers still not able to vote, and they’re able to sustain it. So I’m proud to work with them, and I’m glad they’re finding avenues for engagement.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much. Wishing you a very successful Earth Day, Kathleen Rogers.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you so much for having me.

KATHLEEN ROGERS: Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, based in Washington, DC.

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Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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