50th Earth Day celebrates progress, underscores inequities amid COVID-19 and climate change

Image of person holding small globe

By Stephen Love, Program Officer, Environment

On April 22, 1970, more than 20 million Americans mobilized in hundreds of cities for what would come to be known as Earth Day to protest environmental degradation and injustice and demand a new way forward for our planet. At the time, Cleveland was well acquainted with environmental tragedy, culminating in the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire. The first Earth Day is largely credited with launching the modern environmental movement and is still recognized as the planet’s largest civic event. Despite tremendous progress over the last 50 years, including the recovery of the Cuyahoga River, we now find ourselves facing the existential threat of global climate change and gathering virtually for Earth Day 2020 as we face COVID-19, an unprecedented public health crisis.   

While climate change and COVID-19 may seem unrelated, the former requiring big structural changes to our society and the latter ultimately resolved with development of a vaccine, both are public health crises. Climate change will disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color first and worst for the same reasons COVID-19 is tragically impacting these communities today. The pandemic underscores that where you live matters and environmental inequities that increase vulnerability to climate change like proximity to air pollution, reduced tree canopy, limited access to parks and greenspace (only to name a few) worsen health outcomes for low-income communities, particularly communities of color. According to a 2019 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, people of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are living with 66% more air pollution from vehicles than white residents. See the study here.

COVID-19 has laid bare the disparities in our health care system, but addressing these inequities is only half the equation. If we also address environmental health disparities, we have an opportunity to not only become more prepared to address future pandemics, but also to reduce and adapt to climate change impacts.

At the Cleveland Foundation, we are committed to grantmaking and advocacy that address environmental inequities and reduce climate change impacts, working with our partners and supporting coalitions to build a shared agenda that links environmental protection, public health and economic prosperity. Over the coming weeks, we will share more about our grantmaking strategies and advocacy efforts to reduce climate change impacts and advance clean energy, protect our freshwater and enhance access to parks and greenspace for all residents. Stay tuned to our blog for updates: https://www.clevelandfoundation.org/category/environment/.

We encourage you to participate in virtual Earth Day activities today! Visit https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-2020/ for more information about celebrations and calls to action happening across the globe. For socially distant and virtual Earth Day events in our own backyard, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/267500184252871/?active_tab=about.