Earth Day 2020: COVID-19 Reminds Us Why Science Matters

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Earth Day in 1970 represented an alliance awakening to the science of environmental dangers that translated into a strong and effective political movement. What might Earth Day 50 years later – on April 22, 2020 – mean for us? We could follow a similar path and believe in science again, writes Eric W. Orts in this opinion piece. Orts is a professor of legal studies and business ethics and the founding director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership at Wharton.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day comes at a difficult time, as the world reels from the blow struck by the virus that causes COVID-19. The crisis we are experiencing, though, should tell us something that we should take time to contemplate: Science is essential.

In 1970, the first Earth Day was inspired by a scientist. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which documented the terrible toll on birds, other wildlife, and even human beings wreaked by deadly pesticides such as DDT. As a result, the environmental movement in the U.S. succeeded in convincing Congress to pass a wave of environmental legislation that set a standard for the world, such as in original versions of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

COVID-19 again reminds us of the importance of science. The foundation of the strength of the United States as well as our modern global civilizations depends on three pillars: democratic government, free enterprise, and modern science.

As a general rule, these pillars of progress work in tandem. Sometimes, though, they can find themselves at cross-purposes. Free enterprise can run loose and trample on both science and democracy. Public sentiment expressed through democratic means can attack free enterprise and ignore science.

Even if science may sometimes appear weak compared to the forces of government and business, however, it remains superior to them in an epistemological sense. Science provides the primary method by which modern society understands itself. Science shows the negative effects that human social processes can have on the natural environment. Science also provides the technologies by which we have conquered many environmental and natural challenges – through energy and agricultural production, many different kinds of inventions, and discoveries of the deep secrets of biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics.

Earth Day in 1970, then, represented an alliance awakening to the science of environmental dangers that translated into a strong and effective political movement. What might Earth Day 50 years later mean for us? We could follow a similar path and believe in science again.

On this view, we might see COVID-19 as a canary in the coal mine of our global climate. We will win the war against the coronavirus. We are not fighting zombies in World War Z. We will win World War V. The remaining question is only how many will become seriously ill and die.

Global Climate Disruption

The much larger danger, however, is global climate disruption. If we listen to our scientists, then we are looking at a likely 250,000 deaths annually in 2030 to 2050 on our current business-as-usual course. Millions of climate refugees will also flee drought, famine, rising seas, and more intensive storms, floods, and forest fires. Will we also win World War C?

The COVID-19 canary warns us of a much worse climate catastrophe if we do not take the opportunity to see the danger and listen to the scientists’ predictions. The economic consequences will also be terrifying – much more severe than our current worldwide downturn. There is, though, an answer: Listen to the science.

At present, the coronavirus has killed almost 50,000 Americans and counting. Compare Germany. Only around 4,000 Germans have died. What is the difference? In Germany, Angela Merkel, who has been called the Scientist-in-Chief, is calling the shots. In the U.S., we have a President who ignored the warnings of scientists and his own intelligence briefings. And we still do not have a coherent policy of comprehensive national testing or contact tracing. Instead, the President tweets in favor of the anti-science “covidiots” who are protesting. In other words, we have a Science-Denier-in-Chief.

The COVID-19 canary warns us of a much worse climate catastrophe if we do not take the opportunity to see the danger and listen to the scientists’ predictions.

This is no partisan observation. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, joined a record number of 185 world leaders for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. (I was fortunate to be invited as an informal observer tagging along with the U.S. delegation.) Framework agreements to address climate as well as biological diversity and forest preservation were agreed. Only five years ago, President Obama led 195 countries in the signing of the Paris Agreement to address the climate challenge.

So, what has happened? There is no other way to describe it than as a loss of a collective belief in the power and authority of science. President Trump and his political allies (including adversaries such as Russian intelligence) rallied sufficient forces of free enterprise and democratic opinion against science.

From a short-term perspective, this approach might seem sensible. Eliminating or failing to enforce what are seen as pesky environmental regulations can reduce costs for many business firms, thus leading to economic growth. The problem, though, is that one cannot pay attention to only one pillar of the modern global economy: free enterprise. In the long run, a Trump bump has turned into a Trump slump or worse because of a failure to listen to science. We must appreciate that economic activities can lead to what economists call “externalities.” Just letting the market rip is not a prescription for long-term prosperity. You need governments acting through democratic politics (at least in most countries) to listen to the scientists pointing out dangers to avoid or mitigate.

Earth Day, fifty years later, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the importance of science. Just as scientists are the best guides to how to handle the coronavirus, so are they the best guides to the risks that we face from climate disruption.

Hope for the Future

I see the hope for the future in our classes. Wharton MBAs in two sections of my new core course option on Business, Social Responsibility, and the Environment are enthusiastic in examining new possibilities for the future in business: clean energy, new efficient materials, reusing and recycling technologies, and redefinitions of business purpose beyond profits alone.

Just as scientists are the best guides to how to handle the coronavirus, so are they the best guides to the risks that we face from climate disruption.

Even our sudden shift to universal remote learning has opened a door to a more sustainable future. The connectivity enabled by BlueJeans and Zoom will likely improve with heavy use, reinvestment, and competition. If we successfully transfer lessons learned from this experience, then we may see a long-term trend toward reducing the carbon footprints of business, academic, and other travel. Staying at home more, we might also learn to better appreciate the value of clean air in our cities and clean water in our rivers.

The new generation being born and coming of age now might well be called Generation C. They are dealing with the emotional trauma of COVID-19 lockdowns and see the threat of climate catastrophe in their lifetimes. They may become the generation that finally makes the breakthrough, following leaders such as Greta Thurnberg, to a world that finally takes climate seriously: 50 years after the first Earth Day. In another 50 years, in 2070, perhaps this new generation will look back and see 2020 as a turning point toward what will have become a better and more environmentally sustainable future.

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Earth Day 2020: COVID-19 Reminds Us Why Science Matters. Knowledge@Wharton (2020, April 23). Retrieved from https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/earth-day-2020-covid-19-reminds-us-science-matters/

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