with Paulina Firozi

It's the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. But the celebration will take place without the expected hundreds of thousands of marchers in Washington and other cities calling for action on climate change. 

Those plans for mass protests were upended with the emergence of the novel coronavirus. Any would-be demonstrators are hunkered down in their households, set to join live-streamed events, post on social media and otherwise try to make the most of #EarthDayAtHome.

But climate advocates worried about two crises right now — both the pandemic and global warming — say it's hard not to be disappointed about a missed opportunity for action and primetime coverage. 

“With 6 billion people locked down, it's a little tough,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network. “Everybody's disappointed and upset.”

The focus in Washington – and the world – is instead on coronavirus today. 

Organizers wanted Earth Day's golden jubilee to spark the same swift action seen after the first one in 1970, when Congress passed sweeping laws to curb the highly visible air and water pollution dirtying the nation's skylines and seaways, and Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency to help enforce them.

But the pandemic has effectively dashed those hopes. Gina McCarthy, who ran the EPA from 2013 to 2017, said it was difficult enough getting people to care about the invisible threat of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere even in the absence of the deadly viral outbreak.

“It's hard to do in this day and age, looking at the pandemic that we're facing now,” said McCarthy, who now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And I don't blame people for wanting to focus on today.”

But climate change, she added, “is no less a threat to our health and in our future.”

Organizers are taking to the Internet in lieu of in-person events. 

The live streams will be just as star-studded as ever. Former vice president Al Gore and former secretary of state John F. Kerry will make speeches. Actors Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix will chat on panels. And Questlove and Bono will give musical performances.

With many state lockdowns coming mid-March, the event changes had to come together in less than a month. “It's been difficult to put together, but we have a really great-thinking team,” said Dillon Bernard of the Future Coalition, which is part of a group of nine youth-led climate organizations planning 42 hours of live-streamed content over three days.

But it is hard to imagine those videos online capturing the media attention as much as was planned. Before the pandemic hit, organizers were planning during Earth Day week to picket the branches of banks that underwrite fossil-fuel development, protest on the campuses of colleges invested in oil and gas, and rally at a concert on the Mall.

And nearby, at the headquarters of the EPA — also turning 50 this year — over 500 employees had volunteered to clean up along the Anacostia River. That and 12 other agency events around the country had to be scrapped, according to Andrew Wheeler, the current agency head.

“We're encouraging all of our employees, as well as all Americans, to do something around their home to celebrate Earth Day, [including] picking up litter right around their home," Wheeler tells my colleague Jacqueline Alemany.

Even with so many stuck at home and with nothing else to do, it will hard to rev up people online.

Without the camaraderie of picketing shoulder to shoulder, said Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies climate activism, it will be hard to re-create the fun “eco-festival” atmosphere that helped draw in people to past Event Day events. 

“It's a bit of a lift to get people to live stream,” she said.

That undermines one of the points of Earth Day when it was founded in response to a 1969 oil spill near Santa Barbara, Calif.: to get the politically disengaged to care about the environment. 

And some activists worry about the many options people have. In addition to the Future Coalition's three-day live stream, the Smithsonian and Earth Day Network are hosting their own digital events. “That's problematic,” Fisher said. “It's going to split the constituents in the movement.”

But Rogers, head of the Earth Day Network, said the separate live streams made sense since each group is trying to reach a different audience. Still, she said, the groups talked “all day long, every stinking day” to coordinate speakers and help bolster each other's online events.

“Many of us are sharing content,” Rogers said. 

Earth Day is still important because the coronavirus can't be separated from environmental issues.

While the research is early, scientists are already finding links between two pollutants — soot and nitrogen dioxide — and lethal outcomes from the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Those two pollutants are among the handful the first Earth Day protesters were demanding the federal government do something about.

And protecting nature, scientists say, is the first line of defense against stopping another pathogen from jumping from animals to humans — as happened with the novel coronavirus, which likely came from a bat. Other well-known and worrisome infections, including SARS, MERS, Ebola and HIV, have their origins in animals too.

With deforestation, urbanization and the global wildlife trade bringing people closer than ever to animals, so-called zoonotic infections have more opportunity than ever to pass between species. 

"This pandemic is the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade," said Thomas Lovejoy, a conservation biologist and senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation.

More broadly, said McCarthy, meeting the challenges of both climate change and covid-19 requires heeding the advice of experts — something she said the Trump administration frequently fails to do.

“It's just really important that we be prepared,” she said. “So you listen to the science, you prepare for these challenges based on science, so that you can be ready to act in a way that protects people.”

Read more about the 50th anniversary of Earth Day from my colleague Sarah Kaplan here:

Climate and Environment
What does it mean to be a good Earthling?
Sarah Kaplan

Oil continues its tumble

Trump pledges to help U.S. energy companies. 

The president said he ordered his administration plan to provide federal assistance to the nation’s oil and gas industry, which has been pummeled during the pandemic.

“Until now, the American oil industry has been divided on whether to seek federal help, with the larger companies and the American Petroleum Institute arguing against it,” Will Englund reports. “But Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said Tuesday on Bloomberg TV that the United States would be taking ‘very aggressive’ steps to assist the oil industry and might use funds from the Fed’s Main Street lending program.” 

Bharat Ramamurti, named by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to the stimulus oversight panel, warned that if the plan includes some of the money allocated by lawmakers, the “Congressional Oversight Commission has oversight authority and should scrutinize the plan very carefully.” 

The industry is readying for continued devastation. 

In the meantime, thew global oil glut "sent prices so low Monday that sellers holding U.S. crude contracts paid buyers as much as $30 per barrel to take it off their hands,” Thomas Heath reports

“The collapse went international Tuesday, with futures prices for the global benchmark, Brent crude, dropping to a fraction of the $50 or so needed for a producer to make money. It was an ominous sign, suggesting that oil markets and the world economy may not stabilize for months.” 

The oil industry has never seen the price drops it experienced this week. 

The tumult has resulted in layoffs and shuttered wells. “In Midland, Texas, the epicenter of the oil shale boom over the last decade, parking lots at companies like Chevron, Diamondback and Apache are empty aside from a scattering of pumping trucks,” the New York Times reports. “Executives are working from home, huddling with their colleagues and board members to decide how quickly to shut down production and lay off workers."

Texas oil regulators delayed a vote on oil production cuts. 

One closely watched government agency, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas sector, opted not to move on a proposal to set mandated oil production cuts. Instead, a vote was postponed until at least May 5, and the regulators established a task force to gather more information, the Texas Tribune reports.

More coronavirus fallout

A coal company with Trump administration ties gets $10 million small-business loan. 

Hallador Energy, based in Indiana, got the low-interest loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed for companies with fewer than 500 workers, despite having a head count of more than 700, Juliet Eilperin and I report. Under Small Business Administration guidelines, some bituminous-coal-mining firms with up to 1,500 employees can qualify as small businesses.

The firm also sports two connections to the Trump administration: “Scott Pruitt, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, was hired last year to lobby for the publicly traded firm in Indiana; and the company’s former government relations director now works at the Energy Department.”

The White House is planning to cut regulations as part of its effort to reopen the economy. 

The plan is not finalized, but could include environmental policies, as well as labor policy, workplace safety and health care, Jeff Stein and Robert Costa report.

“Still, the Trump initiative will probably be fiercely criticized by congressional Democrats and other economic experts, who say the administration’s attempts to repeal business regulations reflect long-standing conservative priorities rather than a measure that will help Americans survive the current public health and economic emergency,” they write. “Trump has for years celebrated a massive deregulatory push under his administration as an economic boost, but opponents say the efforts have created more environmental and labor hazards for workers and consumers.” 

A green group threatens to sue over Trump administration's waiving of pollution compliance. 

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of its intent to sue the administration over the EPA’s move last month to temporarily waive some compliance requirements during the pandemic. 

The group cited concerns about endangered species. “While people should certainly not be put at undue risk, the Trump administration must not be allowed to use this pandemic to give polluters free rein to foul our air and water and hurt wildlife,” Jared Margolis, an attorney with the center, said in a statement. 

The center called on the agency to provide information within 14 days on how it plans to comply with parts of the Endangered Species Act if the agency wants to avoid litigation.

Boeing employees returned to work with a new normal. 

In facilities that reopened this week after a three-week furlough, workers found hand-washing stations and managers checking in about their health in what is a sort of experiment for whether Americans can safely go back to work. But it was a return that left many workers and families uneasy, Christian Davenport and Gregory Scruggs report.

“In the Puget Sound region of Washington state, 27,000 Boeing employees returned to work. A few thousand more returned to defense plants outside Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. A plant outside of Charleston, S.C. remains closed for the time being,” they write. 

Power plays

Joe Biden scores United Auto Workers endorsement.

The 400-member from auto workers union announced its support for the former vice president. 

Trump “has heavily courted autoworkers in battleground states like Michigan and Ohio, while Biden has touted his support for autoworkers when he served as vice president and his support of policies championed by unions,” Reuters reports. “The endorsement comes at an opportune time for Biden, who has struggled to maintain a high profile during the COVID-19 pandemic and sustain the momentum he had built up in his lightning-quick run toward becoming the Democratic nominee.” 

D.C. Circuit court rejected the EPA’s policy on science advisers. 

A panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled that a 2017 policy from former EPA chief Pruitt that blocked grant recipients from joining its federal advisory committees is unlawful, E&E reports

  • What the ruling says: “Even the Directive itself agrees that 'it is in the public interest to select the most qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced candidates,'" Judge David Tatel wrote. “Yet the Directive nowhere confronts the possibility that excluding grant recipients — that is, individuals who EPA has independently deemed qualified enough to receive competitive funding — from advisory committees might exclude those very candidates.”
  • The reaction: “This is another terrific victory for science,” Tom Zimpleman, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “It’s a rejection of EPA’s efforts to kick out accomplished, independent scientists and skew advice it receives on critical public health and environmental issues."

Global warming watch

This could be the planet’s warmest year on record. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects there is a 75 percent chance 2020 will be the warmest recorded year on Earth. 

“The NOAA projection, made late last week, is based on statistical modeling now that the first quarter of 2020 is off to a near-record warm start, coming in as the second-warmest January through March period since instrument records began in 1880,” Andrew Freedman reports

Freedman adds: “The land and oceans respond to the amount of greenhouse gases in the air, rather than emissions rates, which means the sudden cut in carbon emissions related to the coronavirus pandemic will not affect global average surface temperatures in the near future.” 

Extra mileage

(Tom Toles/The Washington Post)