As an environmental scientist, I am often asked if it’s too late. With so much division and political dysfunction, is there any chance that we can solve the global environmental crises that threaten us and our planet? Although many questions remain, the magnitude and agility of our response to COVID-19 has dispelled any myths about gridlock or collective impotence. When humans agree that a threat is serious, we can change the world in weeks. We have, for the most part, accepted invasive restrictions and massive economic damage to protect the vulnerable among us. The seriousness of our response speaks well to the solidarity of the human family.
The focused action that we have experienced over the past two months is reminiscent of a movement that reshaped the world 50 years ago. In 1970, a Democratic senator and a Republican congressman inaugurated the first Earth Day. The celebration drew 20 million Americans onto the streets and into the classrooms for a teach-in that kicked off a global movement.
It had been a year since the world had seen the Earth for the first time from space in what Neil deGrasse Tyson describes as the most influential photograph ever taken, now called “Earthrise.” This image of the Earth as an enclosed island in the desolation of space brought clarity to seemingly isolated environmental issues. Acid rain, lead poisoning, toxic rivers and the pervasive loss of species were all consequences of human overconsumption and contributors to declining human wellbeing.
Within months of that first Earth Day, the EPA had been created, the Clean Air Act enforced, and the Endangered Species Act was on its way to expanding our view of life itself.
Fifty years later, that paradigm-shifting Earth Day has faded in public consciousness. In the same way that COVID-19 has overshadowed other concerns over these past months, issues from gun control to climate change have eclipsed the original problem that motivated Earth Day: environmental pollution. If we are serious about protecting human life, pollution, not COVID-19, should be dominating headlines as the defining crisis of 2020.
Pollution and the pandemic are not unrelated. There has been widespread coverage of the environmental benefits of the COVID-19 lockdown. However, the links between these issues go much deeper than short-term improvements in air quality. Both killers are asymptomatic, meaning that many who are sickened or slain will never know what hit them. The quiet creep of these issues means it’s difficult to grasp their scope or get ahead of their spread. Most directly, these issues are linked because air pollution exacerbates respiratory disease, increasing the death rate of COVID-19 by 4.5 times in U.S. communities with higher air pollution.
The most obvious difference between pollution and COVID-19 is that we are only taking one of these issues seriously. Though pollution kills more Americans every year than the worst COVID-19 projections for 2020, there is no congressional relief package or proposal on the table that begins to solve this problem. Instead, the Trump Administration has rolled back over 100 crucial environmental protections, air pollution is on the rise again after decades of improvement, and the EPA has indefinitely suspended environmental enforcement in a misguided effort to soften the economic impact of the pandemic.
The simplest explanation for our disregard of the global pollution crisis is that we aren’t afraid of it. Unlike the novel coronavirus, many of us assume that since that first Earth Day we have solved this problem or at least that it is less urgent than other environmental issues such as climate change. In 2020, there is nowhere in the United States, indeed, nowhere on Earth that you can go to escape anthropogenic pollution. Whether you live in a relatively clean state like New Mexico or a dirty one like Ohio, pollution doesn’t respect boundaries. Half of pollution deaths in the U.S. are now caused by contaminants blown in from out of state.
This isn’t just a problem in Mumbai or Shanghai, pollution is shortening lives and causing disease in every home from Tallahassee to Seattle. Most of the death and health disorders occur in areas that meet EPA standards, which are based on outdated science and arbitrary limits. Even if we aren’t paying attention to pollution, we are still paying for it.
It’s only in the past few years that we have seen the whole pollution picture. New environmental and medical datasets have revealed a crisis that is both global and terribly intimate. This research has advanced so quickly that the World Health Organization’s estimates from four years ago are outdated — more than two times too low. Worldwide, one in four deaths is caused by exposure to dirty air, water, and soil — at least 15.1 million premature deaths every year.
Outdoor air pollution from combustion of fossil fuels and biomass kills over 9 million every year, with indoor pollution and contaminated water and soil accounting for the remainder. To put this in perspective, 15.1 million is 100 times more lives than COVID-19 has claimed worldwide. Every year, pollution causes 18 times more death than all war, murder, and suicide combined—5 times more than tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria combined.
How pollution kills is as terrifying as how many it kills. Pollutants penetrate deep into tissues and cross the blood-brain barrier, interfering with every stage of development and disrupting every system in the human body. Exposure to pollution triggers spikes in birth defects and miscarriages, as well as metabolic disorders, autism and Alzheimer’s. Even psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, and suicide are linked to pollution. One of the largest studies to date estimates that neurotoxic pollutants such as lead and heavy metals have caused a 5-point drop in global IQ, resulting in 60% fewer individuals qualifying as “intellectually gifted” and 57% more classified as “mentally retarded.” Pollution is eroding our ability to invent solutions to solve it.
These numbers represent individual lives cut short, families put through avoidable trauma, and lifelong disability and decreased intelligence. When reduced to dollars and cents, the aggregate cost of this loss of life and human potential totals $5 trillion in economic damage yearly — more than 7% of the global gross domestic product based on conservative estimates. Environmental pollution is the COVID-19 year after year after year.
While these statistics are sobering, the forceful response to COVID-19 has given me hope. Like the “Earthrise” photo that helped inspire the first Earth Day, our new understanding of pollution has the potential to transform how we view society and the environment. Local solutions to problems caused by pollution are emerging around the county, including in red states. Politicians and citizens from across the political spectrum are seeing that because pollution is so harmful and costly, solving it is one of our greatest communal opportunities.
Contrary to deregulatory talking points, pollution-control policies have been extremely effective and economically beneficial. The Clean Air Act was followed by a decrease of 68% in air pollutants while the U.S. economy grew by over 200%. More recently, the benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment have added at least $2 trillion to the U.S. economy, representing a return on investment of $32 for every $1 of cost.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, strategic use of congressional relief funds could expand clean transportation and energy production. Subsidies could be pulled from the fossil fuel and meat industries and redirected to research and expansion of renewables and conservation. Federal funds could be made available to states willing to increase building efficiency standards, which would reduce domestic and commercial waste. These measures are proven and popular across political divides.
For example, 83% of Americans support increasing research and investment into renewable energy—a supermajority in every county in the nation. Together, actions like these would create a large number of high-quality jobs while reducing the largest sources of pollution in the U.S.—personal transportation, electricity production, and buildings.
Pollution and COVID-19 demonstrate the paradox of communal action. We will ignore a known problem for decades but turn the world on its head for a novel threat. There is a huge amount of research on the consequences and solutions of pollution, but there is little awareness and action. Conversely, we have very little information on COVID-19, but the world has implemented sweeping changes to address it. To make a world where all the human family can flourish, we will need COVID-like commitment coupled with careful and deep scientific research on which to base policy decisions. If we wait until Earth Day’s 60th anniversary, it might well be too late.
Ben Abbott, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of environmental science at Brigham Young University.