Earth Day at 50

April 22, 2020 | Community Resilience in the Face of a Pandemic and Climate Change



NCEL Point of Contact


The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, bringing together 20 million Americans. Fifty years later, this Earth Day looks a little different as many of us across the country are under stay-at-home orders and adjusting to our new normal during COVID-19. 

Among all the changes to our daily lives during this pandemic, the need for environmental protection remains unchanged, especially protections for clean air and water.

COVID-19 Underscores Existing Environmental Injustices 

The coronavirus is disproportionally impacting low-income and vulnerable populations, further highlighting environmental injustices. These communities often live with poor air quality, higher pollution levels, and limited access to clean water. This is because factories, refineries, and highways are more likely to be located in low-income and communities of color. 

As a result, these communities have higher risks of asthma and other respiratory health impacts. These existing issues make these communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus as studies have linked exposure to poor air quality too higher risk of death. 

In addition to the threats of polluted air, many communities across America lack access to clean water. More than two million Americans don’t have access to running water or indoor plumbing. This excludes them from taking part in the number one recommendation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — washing your hands.

While the Federal Government Steps Back, States Step Up

While the coronavirus demonstrates the clear need for clean air and clean water, the federal government continues to roll back countless regulations. Now the Administration is taking advantage of the crisis to accelerate rollbacks, even attacking state efforts to clean their air and water. Some of these rollbacks include:

  • Reversal of the Clean Car Standards: In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Administration announced final plans to weaken clean car and fuel efficiency standards.
  • Rollback of coal ash regulations: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed weakening water pollution limits for coal plants and rolling back critical human health and safety standards for toxic coal ash. 
  • Overhaul of NEPA: The Council on Environmental Quality proposed rollbacks to eliminate review for many projects; limit types of impacts examined; allow approval even if critical scientific and technical information is missing; weaken consideration of alternatives during a review; allow agencies to ignore critical public input; allow project applicants to write their own environmental reviews without conflict of interest safeguards.
  • EPA suspending compliance: The EPA announced plans to limit enforcement action on companies that pollute air or water putting vulnerable communities at higher risk.

Despite these rollbacks, states continue to lead the nation with bold climate actions and environmental protections. States have advanced policies to transition to clean energy, protect lands and coastlines from harmful drilling, speed the adoption of electric vehicles, remove harmful pollutants from their water supplies, and much, much more.

Community Resilience as a Path Foward from COVID-19

Pollution levels have dropped significantly in recent months, as much of the world has experienced stay-at-home orders. Los Angeles, notorious for its smog-covered skyline, has experienced some of the best air quality of any major city.

While the shuttering of the world economy is not the way to achieve air quality improvements, they reveal some examples and lessons to be learned from this experience. Polluting interests would have us believe that we must choose between a robust economy or clean air and water, but states and cities are proving that this is a false choice. Well-designed policies can and do grow the economy and create healthier environments simultaneously.

The transition to electric vehicles can mean cleaner air and more manufacturing jobs. A distributed energy grid can provide economic benefits to anyone who can host a solar array or wind turbine. Buildings that are designed or retrofitted to be energy efficient are more comfortable and healthy environments. Access to the outdoors can create recreation jobs and improve the health of all.

Federal and state stimulus dollars should invest in a better future, not just try to return to the status quo. As states rebuild following the pandemic, thoughtful leaders will be working to ensure that their communities, states, and the country emerge more resilient and just. This moment in history calls on all of us to imagine a world where everyone benefits from a clean environment, and no one is put at greater risk to disease and hardship just because of where they live.