Climate and Environmental Literacy

Sylvia Earle and Paul Nicklen: We need immediate action to preserve our oceans

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day came in the middle of a pandemic, completely restructuring what a traditional demonstration may look like. But these changes also allowed an opportunity for reflection: Digital Earth Day let people hit the reset button and discuss a different Earth, one we haven’t seen in decades. 

With everyone at home, the Earth seems to be reverting to its natural self. Sea turtles are hatching and surviving at record rates. Oceans are the quietest they’ve been in decades, allowing whales and other marine wildlife to safely migrate and communicate. And, air pollution has plummeted in major cities.

“It’s a time of reflection,” said Sylvia Earle, renowned oceanographer and conservation activist, during an Instagram livestream on Wednesday. “Never before has the world come together in such a comprehensive way. We have a common enemy. We’ve had the wake up call to take care of nature and protect the underpinnings of what keeps us alive.”

Earle spoke with National Geographic photographer of ocean wildlife, Paul Nicklen, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The extended online conversation aired on Earth Day Live and was framed around the future of the oceans, as well as the hope that still exists amid a warming world.

For Earle, who has spent more than 7,500 hours ocean diving on conservation and research expeditions, the oceans keep us alive. Oceans are huge carbon sinks, and they regulate weather and climate, making life on land possible

But the ocean is in danger, taking the heat for unchecked climate change. Just this month, the Great Barrier Reef saw one of its worst coral bleaching events in history.

“We’re not addressing the overall problem: The planet is sick,” said Nicklen, who is also a co-founder of conservation organization SeaLegacy. “In one year we had the biggest fires in history in Australia, in the Amazon and the biggest hurricane ever. And now with the pandemic, it’s all stacking up. It’s our global health system. The problem is us.”

Infectious diseases have been on the rise since the 1950s, and a warmer climate only makes them harder to eradicate. When we clear forests  — which also act as carbon sinks  — and burn fossil fuels, CO2 flows into the air and into the oceans, accelerating acidification.

“No ocean, no life. No blue, no green,” said Earle.

No ocean, no life. No blue, no green

Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and conservation activist

Earle isn’t the only one driving the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. Ashok Sridharan, the president of Local Governments for Sustainability, declared 2020 a turning point for sustainability and climate action. Sridharen promised new frameworks on biodiversity and innovations in urban development so that humans and our environments can better coexist.

Near the end of the livestream, Nicklen asked Earle what the 100th anniversary of Earth Day might look like.

“We’ve begun to develop this network of hope,” said Earle. “We will still see consequences on the land and in the sea, but we are beginning to respect nature and treat all life with dignity. Fifty years from now, the children of today will be thinking about their grandkids, and they will look back at us and say, ‘thank you,’ for doing what we could.”

In the last several months, we’ve seen how much the Earth can change without our negative influence. That should give us hope. But only if we act on this knowledge. Join Earth Day, the largest environmental movement in the world, and share your hope for the planet’s future. And come election day, vote for the Earth.