“We see that as a clear acknowledgement of really the power of Earth Day globally.”
“…there’s been some really incredible takeaways from the COVID crisis that we can take into environmentalism as we move forward. I think the first thing is we saw in really, really dramatic and tragic fashion how intricately connected human health is with environmental health.”
“We’re at increased risk of having these things like pandemics and the way that we’re treating our environment is really connected to how healthy us as humans can be.”
“The great thing about it is that we don’t have to shut down the world to fight climate change. There are so many ways that we can adapt and evolve our systems to both protect human health and protect our precious habitats and also really improve our economies and slow down climate change.”
“Something that’s been happening for a long time is that the environmental movement as a whole, I think, has really transformed since last Earth Day in terms of its relationship with racial justice.”
“We do want our students to become sustainably-minded entrepreneurs and parents and voters and teachers. We want them in whatever career path they take to have sustainability skills and knowledge.”
“In Earth Challenge, there are a ton of cross-cutting concepts that teachers can use in the classroom, like bringing civics and writing into a follow-up activity.”
Q: This year, Earth Day is celebrating 51 years with three days of climate action. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives for Earth Day 2021 that’s coming up on April 22nd?
A: Yes, absolutely. Well, I just want to say thanks for having me on again. It was so awesome to be on last year and so much has changed in the last year, but we do have so many exciting things happening this year. So our theme for this year is Restore Our Earth, and so our main priority this year is to really look at all of Earth’s natural processes and to think about how we rely on them, what services they provide us to keep our environment healthy. We rely on a lot of ecosystem services like carbon regulation, flood management, water filtration, air purification, pollination, the list goes on and on. We really want to think this year about how we rely on them and how we’ve impacted them. So this year, our priority is to think about all of these things and to look at ways to restore all of these processes to continue to work effectively and efficiently, both for the benefit of humans and for all of the other species we share the earth with.
Our first and foremost look is to look at all of the natural systems we have and to think about how to best restore them. So thinking about building up habitats that we’ve impacted, protecting all of the species that exist in those habitats, and then also looking at things like emerging green technologies and what technological innovations we can utilize to help protect the earth and thinking about innovative ways we can restore all of the Earth’s ecosystems. So all of these things this year are being covered in our Earth Day Live webinars series, where you can tune in to listen about ways that we’re addressing a lot of these issues and how you can take action with us. We also have a ton of toolkits where you can learn more about these issues and discover ways to be involved, both in the scientific process and in civic action process, which is Earth Day’s really tried and true legacy.
Then we’re also hosting our classic Earth Day event map, where you can find things around you that you can attend, register your own events on our map to really help us demonstrate the collective action taking place this year. All of those events are both virtual and in-person, so some places around the world have gotten to a place that they can celebrate in person, but of course, if it’s not safe, we definitely want to encourage you to tune in virtually when you can. Then we also have a resource online where you can find 51 actions to take right now to help the planet. So all of these things are in line with our Restore Our Earth theme.
Q: Sounds awesome, and huge. So President Biden is holding a leaders climate summit that day. In what ways is the Earth Day organization involved with the summit?
A: Yeah. Great question. So the Biden administration has always been very clear that reestablishing the United States as a member and even a leader in the fight against climate change was a priority for them. So while we’re not actually involved in organizing this event, we’re really thrilled that they decided to host it on Earth Day. We see that as a clear acknowledgement of really the power of Earth Day globally. Some people think that Earth Day is a U.S. specific event, but Earth Day is commemorated in over 192 countries and we’ve seen that on social media and through a lot of our partner networks. So we think that this event will be a critical steppingstone for the U.S. to rejoin the world in combating the climate crisis. It’s also going to serve as an important precursor to a lot of the big decisions that are going to be made in November at the COP26.
So this is a really big meeting of global leaders that are going to come together in November to make big decisions about the next steps in fighting climate change. Every country will reevaluate their commitments to lowering their emissions and meeting our 1.5 temperature increase goals that we have. So on our end, some of the things that we are hosting is that we are partnering with some really incredible organizations to host three parallel summits that are taking place on April 20th and 21st, ahead of Biden’s summit. So these summits are going to focus primarily on climate literacy, environmental justice, and then one is being hosted by a just incredible group of youth leaders who are going to talk about the youth movement and addressing climate change. So we’re developing a couple of avenues to bring a lot of the demands and concerns raised from these three parallel summits to the attention of all the leaders at the Biden summit and hope for some bold commitments from them as well.
Q: Wow, okay. That sounds pretty powerful and you pointed out something that I had not thought about at this moment, which is that Earth Day is global. It’s a global initiative. I think you’re right. I think many think of it as an American effort or initiative.
A: Definitely. Yeah. One thing I almost forgot, which would have been crazy, was we are also hosting our own multi-hour live digital event on April 22nd on Earth Day that will have a lot of climate leaders, celebrities, musicians, some elected officials, but from the U.S. and from all over the world. So this is going to be a really powerful event where we talk about a lot of these issues in a cross-sectoral way. So really talking about how every sector of society needs to be involved, and the schedule events for our live event has not been released yet. So I’m going to be careful not to spill any beans, but definitely stay tuned to the press release and the announcement of that schedule of events coming soon.
Q: Great. We will stay tuned. So with respect to the last year where people around the world have been staying home far more due to the COVID-19 pandemic health and mitigation efforts, can you tell us how the health of the earth and its climate have been impacted?
A: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really great question. I think it’s been really fascinating to see the conversations and the media coverage around how the earth changed, especially when lockdown really first started, when the world first shuttered to a halt. We saw animals coming into areas that they hadn’t been seen before in a long time. We saw air quality improving in a lot of major cities. I heard stories about children, young children, who were seeing a fully blue sky for the first time in their life, which is incredible. The general consensus was that the earth was healing without humans going about their day-to-day business. As hopeful as a lot of these changes were, the reality is is that humans are a part of the environment and we are a natural creature on this earth and unfortunately the way that we’re living currently is not beneficial to the earth.
So to see us all disappear temporarily and the earth heal is both hopeful but also disappointing and maybe motivating in that we really need to figure out ways to both continue to go about all of those day-to-day things that we need to do, but also do it in a way that’s not harmful to the earth. So I like to say we need to find ways that we can do our lives in harmony and not in harm to the earth. So as well, I think we’re also seeing that we’re in this climate crisis because of hundreds of years of industrialization and boundless levels of carbon emissions, and even though the past year has been a significant dip in emissions, it’s really not going to have as big of an impact on climate change as we would have liked because relatively the past year has been a short-term experience despite it definitely feeling not short-term. It’s felt like a couple of decades.
But, relatively, it is a short period of time. So it has not necessarily had huge impacts on the current health of the planet, but I think there’s been some really incredible takeaways from the COVID crisis that we can take into environmentalism as we move forward. I think the first thing is we saw in really, really dramatic and tragic fashion how intricately connected human health is with environmental health. Zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that jump from animals to humans or humans to animals, our of being exposed to them as much higher when we do things like destroy habitats and force animals into closer proximity to humans. Or when we hold exotic animals in captivity for food or for fur trading. So we’re at increased risk of having these things like pandemics and the way that we’re treating our environment is really connected to how healthy us as humans can be.
The pandemic also really reaffirmed how vulnerable communities around the world really bear the brunt of the burden of global issues like pandemics and like climate change. We’ve seen really clearly all over the world that people living in the areas with the poorest air quality and the least access to high quality health care are also at the greatest risk for the most severe COVID cases, and that goes the same for climate change. The people who are going to experience the most significant impacts of climate change are also going to be the people who are least resilient to bounce back from them and the least capable of protecting themselves from that. So I think it’s really important as we move forward with all of the decisions we make about human health and environmental health is that we have to make sure we’re serving the most vulnerable.
I’ll also add that I think the most hopeful thing we’ve learned from COVID is that the world is capable of taking really dramatic, wide-sweeping, global collaborative action to address a global crisis. With this really, really tragic and terrible disease that we’ve been experiencing, we’ve seen countries around the world taking action and people around the world taking action to protect each other. I think that’s something that we need to bring the same gusto and urgency into the climate fight, but the great thing about it is that we don’t have to shut down the world to fight climate change. There are so many ways that we can adapt and evolve our systems to both protect human health and protect our precious habitats and also really improve our economies and slow down climate change. So it’s really exciting because there’s so many opportunities for growth and for development while also accomplishing these really important pieces of protecting health and protecting the environment.
Q: It’s such an interesting perspective because you’re right, the media really addressed the whole shift of people staying home as sort of this huge impact, which maybe temporarily might’ve been to some degree, but calling attention to the sustaining of it and really creating a difference in ongoing practices rather than just looking at this temporary snapshot of time, I think that’s hugely important about part of what you pointed out there. So we’ve talked about the last year and what that entailed, and we did actually talk to you last year when you were having your 50th anniversary. So what, if anything, has changed or been impacted since we talked to you last, going beyond what we just highlighted about the whole COVID circumstance?
A: I think in every aspect of life so much has changed in the last year. I think it might’ve been last week last year that I left my office for the last time. Did leave some snacks in my drawer so I hope those got dealt with. But last year was crazy because we had spent … Really we had a five-year plan for our 50th anniversary that we had about three weeks to completely transform. So we had our national mall event and we had the classic in-person Earth Day events that we love so much, which are the festivals and the cleanups and the teach-ins and all of these great things. We had to adapt really, really quickly to get all of that stuff to a digital platform. I think our audience has also had to adapt really quickly and it was stressful, but we were still able to digitally engage with millions of people, which was incredible.
So I think this year is a little bit different in that we’ve had some more time to plan for this specific circumstance. I think our audiences feel more practiced and more comfortable with this kind of science and education and activism virtually. Then I think another thing that’s changed is that many parts of the world are really beginning to be able to have these in-person events safely again. So I think that’s really exciting to see. We’re seeing this light at the end of the tunnel, which is really fantastic.
I think another thing that’s really changed since last year and it’s something that’s been happening for a long time is that the environmental movement as a whole, I think, has really transformed since last Earth Day in terms of its relationship with racial justice. So much has happened around racial justice this year and there’s always been people in the environmental movement that have been strong advocates for this and have been doing this work. But I think as the environmental movement as a whole has not always done this well, and I think everything that’s happened in the past year has really caused organizations and the movement as a whole to really reflect on how we’ve fallen short on these topics and including marginalized voices and amplifying them. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done on that front, but I think this past year has been a great stepping point for us to continue to improve on that and to do better.
Q: Awesome. The theme of events this year is Restore Our Earth, as you mentioned before. What are some ways that school leaders and educators can help Pennsylvania students and their families increase their climate and environmental literacy?
A: So we have five pillars for Restore Our Earth and there are tons of resources and toolkits on our website to engage in all of our topics. So the first one is regenerative agriculture, and regenerative agriculture is a holistic land management practice that uses the power of Earth’s natural systems like photosynthesis and carbon capture and soil and plants as a way to improve outcomes in terms of climate change, but also to really improve crop resilience and nutrient density to make sure that our food is really high in nutrients and that we’re creating enough food to feed the planet.
So we’re promoting a lot of techniques to support farmers in their work to renew the land and to really enhance their soil productivity and yield to build more sustainable food practices and feeding the world, but also to address some of the resilience issues that agriculture faces. Like we’ve seen in the past couple of years, the Midwest has been really impacted by climate change-related flood instances that have really damaged agriculture. So building these more sustainable practices actually increases resilience to a lot of these issues as well. Benefits like reducing erosion and reducing water pollution are also amazing.
The next pillar we have our cleanups. Cleanups are our quintessential Earth Day event, the thing that everybody loves to do and it’s really one of our most immediate forms of restoration. You can really go outside and connect with nature and really come face to face with some of the waste problems our society faces, and you can take immediate action to clean it up and see parts of your community be transformed. But something we really want to see with cleanups is using these experiences to drive change. So as we’re out there cleaning up this trash, identifying where that waste is coming from, identifying those sources and then taking action to close them.
So it could be an issue like a local shopping center parking area doesn’t have appropriate receptacles and so trash isn’t being thrown away or recyclables aren’t being disposed of properly and it’s ending up washing out into a local park perhaps. Or it could be more of an educational issue, like people just don’t understand the impacts of throwing their litter on the ground, and so it takes some sort of community action to teach people about those impacts and help them change that behavior. Or it could be a more large-scale infrastructural issue, like a municipal waste structure that doesn’t adequately manage the waste being produced in the community and what kind of steps can we take to take a broader scale action to better the infrastructure on these waste and plastic issue?
So while we want to be careful that we’re not recommending that you get in big groups doing cleanups just yet, you can go to our website and actually log any type of cleanup that you do. So that could be an individual cleanup, it could be a socially-distanced group cleanup. We also have plogging that you can register, which is, if you haven’t heard of plogging is taking a jog while picking up trash. It’s a very cool new practice I think came out of somewhere in Europe. But it’s a great form of exercise and a great way to clean up your community.
Q: It’s two-fold, right.
A: Yes, exactly. You got to get both benefits. Another one of our pillars is reforestation. So rebuilding those forested habitats that just serve so many amazing services to both our ecological health, but also social health. There’s so many communities around the world that depend on forests for their livelihood. So we are working hard on building up tree cover around the world. We have a project called the Canopy Project where you can donate $1 to plant one tree and we work with on-the-ground partners to identify locations where tree plantings will be both effective ecologically and benefit those local communities. Then we have our citizen science program, which we’ll talk a little bit more about later, but that is our citizen science program, where we mobilize people to collect data and help researchers better understand the health of our environment. So we have ways that you can collect data on insects and pollinators, plastic pollution, air quality and food security.
Then our last pillar is climate literacy, which is what I work on here at Earth Day, and this is a campaign to really bring forward education as a key component in the fight against climate change. So really making sure that students are graduating with climate literacy and being climate literate so that they can tackle these decisions and issues in their everyday lives. That’s not to say that every student will graduate to be an environmental scientist or every student will become a Greta that we see on the news, but we do want our students to become sustainably-minded entrepreneurs and parents and voters and teachers. We want them in whatever career path they take to have sustainability skills and knowledge.
So all of these topics are very exciting for this year and we have tons of resources online that you can use for things in the classroom, also things to do at home and both resources that will help build your scientific understanding and help understand the science of a lot of these concepts, but also how to take civic action and how to build your suite of skills to take action in your community.
Q: Cool. Maybe some of what you’ve touched upon leads into this, but what is the Global Earth Challenge and does that fit into the K through 12 curriculum space?
A: Yes, absolutely. So Global Earth Challenge is our citizen science platform that I mentioned before that we built with the Wilson Center, which is a think tank in DC and the United States state department. So it’s an incredible collaboration that has built this app and online platform that really empowers everyday citizens, including students of all ages to collect data that will help scientists better understand the health of our planet. So we have four research questions, which are, what is the extent of plastic pollution, how does air quality vary locally, how are insect populations changing and how is my food supply sustainable? So users can go into the app and take photos around their environment. It could be around their school yard. It could be at home. It could be anywhere in their community and actually take pictures of what they’re seeing of plastic pollution and of the sky and of insects and pollinators that they see out there, and it actually collects data that helps scientists know more about these questions.
So the app actually takes that learning experience one step further because we don’t just want to collect the data and have it go off and not really know what it means or what to do with it. So we have built into the app a lot of different ways for you to collect a piece of data, submit a photo, and then to be fed more information about what it means. So what does your air quality mean if it’s high or if it’s low, and then what can you do? There’s civic action components built into the app that teaches you how you can take action on those issues. Here at Earth Day, we are huge advocates for environmental education, including every topic, because it really does. And in Earth Challenge, there are a ton of cross-cutting concepts that teachers can use in the classroom, like bringing civics and writing into a follow-up activity.
So students can use this app in science and have it be part of a data collection lesson or a lesson about plastic pollution or air quality, but then teachers can take it into that cross-cutting element of writing a persuasive letter to an elected official or writing essays to submit to a local newspaper, creating art pieces out of plastic pollution that they collected while taking pictures. They can also apply some of their data math skills into tracking things like their bee sightings or plastic pollution that they find and graphing them. I’ve also seen classes take this opportunity as a way to create a PSA video or even a podcast about the issue. So there’s tons of ways to be really flexible with the app, to use the app as a data collection experience, but then to extend it into a lot of different learning opportunities.
Q: It sounds like so much that can be done to just create awareness and also be involved in it. So let’s direct folks where to go. Where can listeners find more information about these initiatives and the resources that you’ve mentioned?
A: Absolutely. So you can go to earthday.org to register all of your events on our map. You can check out our Earth Day 2021 page to learn about all of our campaigns and how you can get involved. Then I would also love your listeners to check out our education resource library, which is where we host all of our tools and resources to use at school and at home.
Kira Heeschen is the Senior Education Manager at EARTHDAY.ORG. While attending college to become a high school earth science teacher, Kira spent a summer working with the Youth Conservation Corps leading a team of young women in conservation projects in various Virginia State Parks. This is where Kira first discovered her love for teaching outside of the classroom where she can build connections to nature and empower others to protect it. After graduating from James Madison University, Kira went on to earn her Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies from Antioch University New England where she focused her studies on environmental education and climate change communication. Since then, Kira has worked as a science communicator for the Denali National Park, coordinated a climate solutions conference, and worked as a naturalist guide for classroom field trips. In her role at EARTHDAY.ORG, Kira creates resources for teachers and students to engage in environmental topics and coordinates a campaign to advance climate education initiatives all over the world.