Earth Day 2020 message

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Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It is not surprising if this important milestone in the climate action movement is not top-of-mind given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. What may surprise you is the ancient Greek origin of the word pandemic, pandēmos, which literally translates to all (pan) people (dēmos.)

In our view, these two issues are fundamentally connected because they both affect all people and all people must be part of the solution.

Meeting the COVID-19 public health crisis will require all of us to act to protect the collective whole, i.e., society. Whether it is the countless individual decisions to self-isolate and drastically limit interaction, up to the immeasurable and inspiring acts of  bravery, compassion, care, and expertise of the professionals on the frontlines of the crisis, including medical clinicians, their support staff and everyone who risks their health to ensure that the necessities of modern life continue as close to normal as possible.

This week, in some areas of the country, we may be seeing the first positive results of our collective action, including glimmers of hope that we are at least slowing the spread of the virus. Perhaps the first signs of better days ahead and a much-needed affirmation of the power of collective action to drive positive change for society –precisely what Earth Day set out to do 50 years ago --“to change human behavior and provoke policy changes.”

Those glimmers of hope highlight our power to make an immediate difference in the face of a global threat. They are proof that individual choices can lead to positive societal change, including the longer-term climate crisis.  

More to the point for Earth Day, COVID-19 highlights the inextricable connection between human health and the health of our climate.

The New York Times reports that researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, after analyzing almost 3,100 counties in the United States, found that “higher levels of the tiny, dangerous particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the [COVID-19] disease. For example, it found that a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution.”

While the cost in human lives and suffering is enormous and growing, the positive environmental impact driven by the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown is unmistakable, including smog-free images of the Los Angeles skyline, and other major cities around the world and clearer waters in the iconic Venice canals. Reuters reports that emissions in China have fallen by an estimated 25%. And Stanford University professor Rob Jackson projects that global carbon output could fall by more than 5% year-on-year. All of which begs the question, “How can we change our behavior post-crisis to fight the longer term but no less immediate threat of climate change?”COVID-19 for all its horror has made clear that all people have a role to play in a cleaner and healthier environment. The immediate positive changes to our environment today, should inspire us to change how we live, work, and play to fight the climate crisis.  

If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 tragedy, perhaps it is the clarity it has brought to our responsibility to each other and the importance of individual behavior on the greater good. All people have a role to play in sustaining meaningful climate action. Architects are natural leaders in this area because of our fundamental commitment to protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the society we serve. That commitment confers a responsibility to do what we can, be it small or large, to combat the climate crisis.

During an even darker hour for our nation, President Abraham Lincoln observed “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’"

Based on the leadership shown by so many in our profession in the face of both the immediate COVID-19 crisis and the long-term  climate crisis and the positive impact we have been able to achieve on both fronts, our profession’s answer to that question is an emphatic yes. In the words of a 21st century author, Rebecca Solnit, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

We are proud of how so many AIA members have stepped up to answer the call to help solve the climate crisis. Our actions together on behalf of our clients and our communities are beacons of hope that cumulatively will create lasting and meaningful change for the society we serve. We look forward to working with many more to create a more hopeful future, together, through the power of design.

Robert Ivy, FAIA

EVP/CEO American Institute of Architects

Jane Frederick, FAIA

2020 President American Institute of Architects

Image credits

GettyImages-162490993

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