2020 was supposed to be a “super year” for nature. The private sector, governments, and civil society seemed finally ready take the road toward a sustainable future and address biodiversity loss and changing climate due to human activities. But in a matter of weeks, COVID-19 took the planet by storm as it understandably became the most urgent threat facing human life today.

However, as we all consider how to respond to the pandemic and its aftermath, it is critically important to stay the course when it comes to ongoing environmental crises.

Some aspects of the environment have been receiving positive attention, such as the unusually clear skies over major cities due to reduced air pollution, and wildlife returning to parks and urban areas now absent the presence of humans. While these are among the few, if temporary, silver linings in the pandemic, serious environmental issues are still occurring.

Here is what has been happening: 

Climate change impacts are mounting.  Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has suffered another severe coral bleaching event. It’s the third in 5 years, following the warmest ocean temperatures ever recorded. While some corals are able to recover from bleaching, this process can take more than a decade, and scientists fear the Great Barrier Reef will not bounce back this time. Additionally, a vast region of the southwestern United States, is experiencing the first climate change-induced “megadrought” with the potential to last multiple decades. Nothing like this has been observed in the past 1,200 years.

Environmental science is slowing down. Despite video meetings and online collaboration, lockdowns and restrictions on travel are having a major effect on the environmental science community. Some institutions are halting or rescheduling environment projects. From basic to applied research as data collection, field work, and lab work, research becomes next to impossible in a locked-down world. The implications of this will be far-reaching.

The future of biodiversity is more uncertain than ever. In 2019, global reports sounded the alarm of biodiversity loss accelerating at a dangerous pace. And now, while much of humanity is on lockdown, wildlife crimes such as poaching and illegal fishing are still occurring because enforcement is hampered by social distancing and increased investigation times. The Sea Shepherd Foundation recently halted marine enforcement patrols of endangered Vaquita whales in Mexico due to port closures. Additionally, several wildlife re-introduction programs and rescue centers, designed to boost threatened species populations, are being forced to limit their efforts.

Decreases in environmental oversight and regulation have continued at an alarming rate. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is reducing enforcement on a range of health and environmental protections and has rolled back auto fuel efficiency regulations designed to combat climate change. Last year, the Endangered Species Act was significantly weakened, potentially favoring economic returns over biodiversity. Canada’s Ontario government is also reducing oversight by eliminating rules that require public consultation or consider environmental impact.

The unintended consequences of the pandemic are many. With governments and the private sector focused on response, and a string of upcoming international policy and science convenings related to climate and conservation now cancelled, philanthropists are uniquely positioned to be the galvanizing force that keeps the world on track for a resilient, equitable, and sustainable future.

The conservation community needs philanthropy to continue their support for environmental issues, release more capital to support boots-on-the-ground efforts, be flexible with the needs of current and new grantees who are under enormous constraints and pressure right now, and finally, collaborate with others to ensure outsized impact. As Greta Thunberg noted, “Our house is still on fire.” So even as COVID-19 continues to command our attention, it is critical for philanthropists to stay the course on prior commitments, and help rebuild momentum in combating environmental crises.


By Matthew H. Lurie, PhD, Associate Director, Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.