Unprecedented opportunity


Shahzeb Khan

APRIL 22, 2020, marked the 50th Earth Day, half a century since the original Earth Day in 1970 that kick-started the environmental movement. All of us eagerly waited for this occasion, as huge commemorations were planned around the world with as many as one billion people expected to participate. Environmentalists planned to hold massive rallies and launch various programs such as the Great Global Cleanup, a campaign of volunteering for cleaning up litter. In the wake of 2019’s strong climate change activism, Earth Day 2020 was supposed to be one more watershed occasion for our struggle to safeguard the health of our planet. Then came the Coronavirus pandemic, putting the health of people all over the world in jeopardy. The rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 is a huge and completely unexpected shock to the world system, creating huge societal disruption. Social interaction has been severely curbed, as people have to keep physical distance from others and stay home. Most activities we spent years planning for Earth Day 2020 have therefore been cancelled. Earth Day organizers have done their best to adjust, turning Earth Day commemorations into a largely digital affair with much success.
The real challenge, however, has just started. Earth Challenge 2020, launched last month, is an enormous citizen science program being held in heel of Earth Day 2020. It is working to mobilize millions of people around the world to collect data on environmental conditions that will be analyzed and integrated to allow science to better understand the planet’s overall ecological health. Basically, the aim of Earth Challenge is to get ordinary people to monitor threats to the environment in a coordinated manner. The Coronavirus pandemic, however, presents this campaign with a huge curveball. Firstly, billions of people are faced with great difficulties. It is hard to get so many to be involved in environmental science when they are struggling to cope and adjust to the new circumstances. Most of all, the requirement of social distancing means we have to stay away from other people and even stay home. Environmental monitoring is still possible while maintaining social distancing, but the fact remains that it will have to be done under very challenging circumstances. Secondly, the pandemic and the disruptions to society it has wrought actually diminish the usefulness of Earth Challenge. We are supposed to be making observations about current environmental conditions to better understand how human activity is impacting the Earth, but those very conditions have changed momentarily as the virus curbs most human activity. For instance, air pollution is one of the main areas pursued by Earth Challenge, but lockdowns around the world have suddenly made the air much cleaner, though only for a short period. The problem for Earth Challenge is that if we study the environment during the pandemic, we will be presented with a picture that does not entirely reflect how the environment normally is. To put it simply, we cannot monitor threats to Planet Earth when these threats have gone into hiding for the time being, making 2020 worst time to hold this particular environmental science program.
This need not be the case if we re-evaluate our goals. We have good reason to, because the spread of COVID-19 presents us with an incredibly unique opportunity. The pandemic has provided Earth with an enormous relief from man-made degradation. Air pollution levels have fallen dramatically. Wild animals are wandering freely over wider areas in the absence of humans. Carbon-emitting activities, which we have struggled so much to curb, have plummeted everywhere. If we study the environment now, we will see something extraordinary – a world we have been fighting to create for half a century. It is extremely important for us to study this world while it lasts. It will inform us of how the environment reacts to the cessation of man-made disturbances, as well as how the strategy to mitigate these disturbances can be implemented. It will provide us with enormous insight into environmental dynamics and how nature and humans interact. As we fight to create a healthier planet, observing how things are now will allow us to better know what our desired planet will be like and how we can create it. This makes 2020 the most important time for environmental science ever. All those who spent years preparing for Earth Challenge may not have gotten what they were planning for, but instead got something very special. Due to COVID-19, citizen scientists will not be as much able to investigate how the natural environment generally fares, but will be able to discover more about how certain changes impact it. It is a fantastic and rare opportunity that has come our way.
The challenges citizen scientists face because of COVID-19 must be overcome for us to avail this opportunity. Right from the beginning, Earth Challenge 2020 is meant to involve activities that largely exist in the telecommunication sphere and in the great outdoors. Volunteers are supposed to explore the natural environment, such as wildernesses and even just the air around them, which they can easily do while staying away from people. Then they are to upload the data they collect onto digital networks for others to view. Communicating between large numbers of people remains vital, but it can be done virtually. The Earth Challenge platform has created a variety of digital resources for that purpose. 2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges, but there is a lot of benefit we can derive from it, particularly with regards to scientific research. Earth Challenge 2020 has therefore acquired more significance than we could ever have imagined.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.