For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Over the last few months, with every decision or action taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, reactions and consequences have been coming hard and fast.
All around the world, businesses big and small, and individuals and families from all walks of life are struggling to cope with a new reality that still changes daily. But what about the consequences that are playing out behind the scenes as the virus continues to run its unpredictable course? While our daily attention is naturally focused on the immediate challenges at hand, there are many others taking a back seat—and they will have devastating consequences for people and for the planet. Here are a few that the Center for Strategic Philanthropy has been monitoring in the environment space.
Environmental disaster response is being compounded by ongoing COVID response.
Hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other environmental disasters leave behind devastating consequences. Communities now have to deal with the double whammy of a pandemic and potential environmental disasters—and they are facing both challenges with already strained government and community resources.
At the time of writing, there are reports of a historic ‘Mega’ dust storm traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara hitting the Caribbean and Southeastern U.S. where COVID-19 cases are currently spiking. The storm will alter the weather, potentially triggering harmful algal blooms and creating air pollution (which may increase susceptibility to COVID-19). Similarly, wildfire season has already started along the U.S. western states, and the Atlantic hurricane season is projected to be particularly intense this year.
Critical environmental science unrelated to COVID-19 is being stalled or has come to a halt.
Around the world, many environmental scientists have to make choices about whether to collect the data they can, or abandon field sites and pause lab work to obey stay at home orders, physical distancing, and travel restrictions. Major environment projects, from climate change monitoring to ensuring wildlife recovery following the January Australian wildfires, are on hold. Even in Antarctica, the only continent untouched by COVID-19, the research season is being canceled. The domino effect of missing critical work and the uncertainty of having gaps of unknown length in scientific data sets will be far-reaching, particularly for ecology, conservation, exploration, environmental health, and earth systems monitoring.
The already-leaky environmental science training and education pipeline has sprung even bigger leaks.
Around the world, classrooms and academic institutions are a training ground for environmental scientists and conservationists to learn foundational knowledge and professional skills, but the pandemic is creating a situation full of uncertainty for schools and students. Graduate students and early-career scientists are facing uncertainty about fellowships and scholarships, in addition to unclear requirements about timelines for academic progress at a time when projects may not be able to be completed due to closures and travel restrictions. Undergraduates are faced with decisions about whether classes will be held in the fall, virtual or not. Even for K-12 students, as of May, four million youth have missed outdoor environmental and outdoor science education. Looking ahead, two-thirds of outdoor and environmental education organizations are at risk of shutting down in the U.S. due to COVID-19.
Our plastic problem is getting worse.
The overall waste problem is getting worse, with recent evidence of a growing human footprint on our planet. Despite recent efforts by civil society, plastic waste is making an ill-deserved comeback during COVID-19 as our collective overuse of it increases. Many municipalities have lifted bans on single-use plastic bags. Individuals are consuming takeout at unprecedented rates, which has led to a surge of waste from single-use plastic food delivery containers. Additionally, discarded single-use masks and gloves are turning up on beaches, waterways, and even in the street. Together, this explosion of waste will continue to stress the environment in ways that will take decades to fix.
Front line conservation organizations and communities are struggling.
With the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis, front-line conservation workers mitigate the worst impacts on a daily basis. During the pandemic, poaching is on the rise in places like Africa and Asia, and rangers and enforcement agents are having to make tough calls about their safety and animal protection. Ecotourism around the world has halted, taking employment and conservation projects off the table. With funding sources drying up, conservation-oriented organizations (e.g., NGOs, zoos, and government offices) are forced to run on skeleton crews or close entirely. Another sobering fact is that the devastating human toll of COVID means we are losing people with ‘on-the-ground’ or ‘in-the-water’ knowledge about species and habitats. This is particularly troubling because Indigenous lands and waters, and the individuals who steward them, safeguard approximately 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: This is a truly unprecedented situation. Philanthropy has been stepping in to fill some of the void, and must continue to do so. That said, philanthropy works best when it works in partnership with the government and the nonprofit sector, but with businesses small and large shuttered or at reduced capacity for the foreseeable future, partner revenues are down. It is also unclear how governments will roll out economic recovery measures, and whether they will meet the challenge of providing immediate financial assistance through mechanisms that do not compromise long term environmental health.
It’s clear that our “normal” pre-COVID lifestyles were broken, for people and the planet. The good news, however, is that we are on the cusp of a great global ‘reset’ that conservation philanthropists are poised to lead.
For high-impact social investors, philanthropic capital and convening capability can be the catalyst that not only helps to mitigate the environmental damage the virus has caused but actually helps to change the course of the future.
By Matt Lurie Ph.D., Associate Director, Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.