Celebrate Earth Day's 50th anniversary by planning for the next 50 years

By Kelly Montoya

Celebrate Earth Day's 50th anniversary by planning for the next 50 years

By Kelly Montoya
During this year’s Earth Day celebration, University of Miami climate change proponents invite the community to virtually tune in to timely conversations that explore the future of the planet.

When Dina Moulioukova, a lecturer in the department of international studies at the University of Miami, first heard that Earth Day events were cancelled as a response to the growing coronavirus threat, she immediately began to strategize with her students on ways to digitally reinvent this annual celebration. 

“The current situation with the pandemic has reignited debates on climate change, animal welfare, and the need to transition to green energy moving forward,” she said. “The members of our university community are the guardians of knowledge and research, so it’s imperative we use this opportunity to engage and discuss global challenges, no matter the platform.” 

In a matter of days, a group of University of Miami climate change enthusiasts came together to curate conversations and workshops that will cover various topics. These include impacts of COVID-19 on the way we address the climate crisis, a lesson on how to build your own garden, and even a way to virtually continue the student’s Lake Osceola “hug the lake” tradition. 

Graduate students at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, studying various sectors of the Earth sciences, recognize the importance of sustainability in their respective fields. As part of their initiatives under the Marine Science Graduate Student Organization (MSGSO), they wanted to provide a resource for the community during Earth Week. Instead of cancelling due to COVID-19, they chose to reformat their activities into webinars, complimenting the activities at the main campus and further highlighting the resilience of our UM community.

During the celebration, President Julio Frenk will announce the winner of the Roberta “Bosey” Fulbright Foote Prize, which recognizes an individual or team who has made an enduring contribution to the beauty, humanity, and future of the University’s campuses. 

“The historic times in which we are living remind us of the interconnectedness of our global community,” said Frenk. “Preserving our environment, continuing our cherished traditions in innovative ways, and developing solutions to complex challenges—ranging from public health emergencies to climate change—all speak to the spirit of interconnectedness that is an essential part of the University of Miami.” 

Talula Thibault, a student double majoring in ecosystem science and policy and geography and an intern at the Office of Sustainability, had been leading a team of 40 students in implementing green projects and earth-friendly initiatives on campus and in the community before the crisis hit. 

Now, her focus has transitioned to the role of virtual moderator for a panel that will address questions about climate change, sustainable development, and COVID-19 in these confusing and frustrating times. 

“We may not be used to Zoom calls or virtual communication, but it really has done rapid wonders in aiding the environment. This will hopefully encourage progressive consequences that we can carry forward long-term,” said Thibault. 

This is one of Thibault’s last initiatives as chair of the Student Government Energy and Conservation Organization before she graduates in May. 

“I feel fortunate to have been part of so many campus environmental advancements during my undergraduate studies,” she said. “There is nothing more crucial, now more than ever, than taking a moment to pause, reflect, appreciate, and give love to our natural world. We are nothing without it.” 

One of the panelists participating in this year's celebration, Xavier Cortada, artist and faculty member of the Department of Art and Art History in the College of Arts and Sciences, also had Earth Day plans altered because of the pandemic. 

Cortada was going to distribute the mangrove sprouts that were grown at the Miami Herbert Business School and the Otto G. Richter Library to the University of Miami family, so that they could be planted at people’s homes and continue conversations about saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. 

“Unfortunately, those conversations will have to be deferred until the pandemic passes, but other conversations are going to take their place,” Cortada said. “Right now, we need to become aware of the vulnerabilities that we have in our society and find ways to become protagonists and actors to help solve those problems.” 

In lieu of the mangrove distribution, Cortada will now participate in a series of events to help the University of Miami assess and address the coronavirus pandemic in Miami. 

Cortada believes that this crisis has highlighted our vulnerabilities, because, now more than ever, we can see that a changing climate will change the protection methods we currently have in predicting pandemics. 

“Pandemics will be stronger because climate change will transform existing systems. Latitudes become warmer, habitats will shift, and ecosystems will collapse,” he explained. 

On the bright side, Cortada emphasized that this pandemic also demonstrates humankind's ability to act when faced with a common problem. 

“We know how to come together quickly to solve a problem when we see it. This year during Earth Day, I want us to visualize the future. I want us to understand that unless we start acting like we're acting now, the future of our planet is going to be full of regret and inactions of all the things we didn't do to protect our planet and protect ourselves.”

To prepare for Earth Day, Cortada put out a call for the University community to write an open letter to someone living in the future and submit it for the public to read and contemplate.

“Today, too many are in denial about the human impact on global climate change. By writing to someone in the future, we can’t deny their existence. By writing to them, we create a connection to them,” he said. “Being able to connect with our progeny raises the stakes for us now. It lengthens the ‘care horizon’ beyond our lifetime. It encourages us to do all we can now to protect our planet, its future generations and the animals we coevolved with.”   

Cortada hopes this year leaves lasting impressions on individuals and the world. 

“We need to use the impact that this one virus has had on our society as a lesson,” he added. “Over the next 50 years, we need to heal the planet by adapting new systems and processes; so that we fare better, and we leave our planet in better hands for the generations to follow.”    

The virtual Earth Day 2020 celebration will take place April 18–24, and it is open to the public.

Visit miami.edu/virtualearthweek for a full Earth Day 2020 schedule.

To submit your Letters to the Future, visit cortadaprojects.org.

Visit climate2020.miami.edu for more information and climate change news.