Earth Day and the Coronavirus

Abstract: April 22nd marks the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. This year, the coronavirus will prevent people from the typical gatherings that mark the celebration of our planet. The first Earth Day, in 1970, drew twenty million people - one in every ten Americans - out to the nation’s streets and parks to show their appreciation for nature and to call for its protection. The event soon spread to nearly every country in the world and it is estimated that one billion people – one in seven – now commemorate Earth Day. As one of the founders of Earth Day said in 1970, “If the environment is a fad, it's going to be our last fad...We are building a movement, a movement with a broad base, a movement which transcends traditional political boundaries.”

Fifty years later, it is clear that environmental protection is not a passing fad, but one of the most important global projects underway today. As a result of the increased focus on the health of Earth’s ecosystems and natural resources over the past many decades, our planet is in some ways healthier today than it was in 1970. There are also far more environmentally-friendly technologies today helping power electricity and vehicles. At the same time, however, the world has yet to take the necessary steps to curb climate change, a phenomenon barely understood in 1970 but is this year’s Earth Day theme. In early 2020, as the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic (which has deep environmental roots) brings the world to a near stand-still, we can take stock of current environmental protections, what still needs to be done to keep the Earth inhabitable for a growing population, and how the world can commit an appropriate level of attention to the slower-moving crisis that is climate change.

Teaching Suggestions

“Earth Day and the Coronavirus,” the new Current Context issue, explores the linkages between climate change and pandemics, incorporating links to climate change-related classroom resources, a historical example of coordinated global environmental protection, and an examination of the environmental justice components of this pandemic, which is hitting particularly hard our nation’s communities of color. For more in-depth classroom/at-home activities, students can explore one or more of these angles. Listed below are some suggested approaches and resources:

  • History of Environmental Protection Efforts

Earth Day - its purpose and its history - can be one way your student engages in this topic. This website includes original news coverage of the first Earth Day in 1970. Two years later, in 1972, the United Nations established its Environment Programme. 10th and 11th grade students can learn more about these developments and connect their learning from the Post-WWII era to ask “why did the environmental movement emerge when it did in the United States and around the world?” “How did globalization speed both environmental hazards and the opportunities for collaboration across nations to address some of these problems?

  • Federal Legislation and International Agreements

Coinciding with an increased focus on environmental degradation here in the United States was a global effort to protect natural resources, such as water, air, soil and energy sources. 12th grade students can connect their government content to the work happening within the United States and internationally over the past several decades to improve environmental quality. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are two strong federal examples, while the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer is a particularly successful international agreement. Students can study these and consider the following questions: “Why do governments pass laws to protect natural resources? Who benefits?” “Why are there disagreements about the need for environmental protections?” “How can countries either hurt or help each other’s environmental goals?”

  • Environmental Justice

Students can consider the ways in which issues of inequality are exacerbated by today’s pandemic. Medical records show that in many cases communities of color in this country are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This is at least in part because of chronic health conditions among these communities that are connected to environmental toxins, such as air pollution. This NAACP brief outlines some of the environmental injustices people around this country face each day, as well as some of the short and long-term health, social, and economic consequences. This brief also includes suggested classroom resources on these topics. Students can also use this activity developed by the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis to understand the various indicators of health, social well-being and environmental quality in their own communities. Students can explore the connections between present-day environmental injustices and their historical knowledge to explore such questions as: “How did geography and natural resources affect relationships among different social groups? Did the environment play a role in colonialism, imperialism, or nationalism?” “How did the environment figure in colonial policies and practices that led to indigenous dispossession?” “How did native populations use the environment to resist colonization?” “How were post-contact experiences shaped by geography and access to environmental goods?”

These are just a few ideas for deepening learning along these lines. Please share your ideas and strategies; you can reach us at