Scientists, like myself, who study climate change often get cornered at parties and family gatherings. I know the question that is coming by the intensity of the questioner’s gaze. “Lisa, tell me. Given all the impacts of climate change we’re seeing, don’t you feel despair? What possibility can give you hope?” I have always harbored cautious optimism that we can tackle climate change, even though at times those strands of hope frayed. This month, my hope is buoyed, and it comes from the most unlikely of places — the canceling of all but the most virtual of Earth Day celebrations.
I have been planning for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day for more than two years. The biggest of big tents was under construction — a worldwide coming together of scientists; citizens; activists; civic, business and spiritual leaders; and more. Last month, those plans ground to a halt — locally, nationally and globally. And, funny thing, among the people I work more closely with, no one spent more than a moment or two in regret. We’re busy flattening the curve, as if our lives depended on it (they do). And we’re in the midst of an unplanned teach-in about planetary stewardship. Here’s what I’m learning.
Lesson 1: Science is a global practice, and that’s a good thing. The public has seen the global scientific community be nimble and collaborative, lifting enormous loads and rising to seemingly insurmountable challenges. Chinese scientists sequenced the COVID-19 genome in the early days of the outbreak, then immediately made the data publicly available. Here in Seattle, scientists at University of Washington Medicine are leading the way in the detection and prevention of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses. In fact, our researchers have identified the architecture and mechanisms of COVID-19, created a new laboratory test to expedite diagnostics and are crowdsourcing a cure, among other efforts.
This is how the best science works now — crossing intellectual and geographic boundaries. In the College of the Environment at UW, I see my fellow scientists collaborate with peers worldwide to literally take the pulse of the planet. In the 50 years since the first Earth Day, the scientific community has learned to collaborate across boundaries. Scientists, regardless of discipline, are feeling the same urgency that motivates us to share data and models, to convene international working groups, to understand the world, so that we can make it better.
Lesson 2: The path from scientific research to policy is a bumpy one, and that’s a shame. We saw scientists develop COVID tests in a matter of days, only to have their rollout delayed by political hurdles. Sadly, this is not unique to medical sciences. How is it that renewable energy sources get more and more affordable but are still so slow to be adopted worldwide? We know sea level is rising, yet many areas still allow huge developments to be built on shorelines. It is my fervent hope that we continue to work to bridge the gap between science and society, so cutting edge scientific knowledge is both usable and used.
Lesson 3: Science can lead to real behavior change. Real science in the form of data, models and estimates of uncertainty is being used to inspire billions of people into action. This continues to be the biggest and best surprise I have observed come from this terrible moment in time. Gov. Jay Inslee consulted scientists and acted decisively. UW public health researchers made the case for flattening the curve, and we all changed our behavior at great personal sacrifice. We closed our businesses and rounded up our personal protective equipment to bring to area hospitals. The UW along with other universities and schools moved on a dime to put all of its classes online. The stores ran out of yeast because so many of us took to baking bread to soothe our souls. Neighbors pitched in to deliver groceries to people in quarantine. My dogs can’t believe their good fortune at taking long walks every day. Science is helping us reprioritize and take care of ourselves and each other.
These lessons learned from our collective COVID-19 response give me more hope for the future of the planet — more hope than could possibly have come from global celebrations of Earth Day. When you talk about flattening the curve, you are talking like a scientist. Science in playing a critical role in motivating billions of people around the world to make tough, fundamental choices individually and collectively, to safeguard our future. As we flatten the curve, we have built a precious trust between science and society. As a scientist and an educator, my spirits are buoyed knowing that so many around the world are developing a new appreciation for what excellent science and science reporting looks like.
I feel hopeful that many of us will remember this as we navigate the many environmental choices we need to make to ensure the best future for our families, our communities and the world. These are the tools that we need to steward the planet and make every day Earth Day.