California State University  (CSU) Chancellor's Office

Earth Day 2020: The Human Element

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Earth Day movement created by a San José State alumnus. Will the positive environmental impacts of fewer people moving about the planet during a pandemic change the ways we treat our home in the future?

Newswise — ​​​​​​​Fifty years ago, San José State University​ alumnus and Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson established the first Earth Day, which took place across the country on April 22. What started as a campaign to raise environmental awareness blossomed into an enduring movement. Nelson's campaign spurred Congress to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, leading to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Today, Earth Day engages billions of citizens around the world to take part in activities and events in the name of environmental sustainability.

But what does Earth Day 2020 look like in the midst of a global pandemic? We asked Steve LaDochy, Ph.D., professor of geosciences and environment at Cal State LA, an expert in air pollution and climate, to reflect on the ways in which our human impact has become even more clear in recent weeks, and how it could inform our future actions. What positive environmental impacts are being observed as a result of fewer people roaming the Earth due to the pandemic stay-at-home orders?

Dr. LaDochy: Every car you take off the road saves so many metric tons of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases and that slows down global warming. So during this pandemic, with fewer cars on the road, we have cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gasses, temporarily. And people can clearly see that we do have a huge impact on our environment. So why can't we do that all the time? Why do we need a coronavirus to make us clean up our environment?

[Between March 16 and April 6, 2020, particulate matter in the air dropped 40 percent in Southern California, according to UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health.] How do you see California's role—and the California State University's role—in how these observations inform future policies and practices around climate change?

Dr. LaDochy: California has always been a leader in environmental sustainability. We have the strictest air quality laws in the world. We were the first to make the car companies come to our standards. The CSU is doing some fantastic things in climate research and environmental sustainability.

One example at Cal State LA is the work surrounding the concept of urban heat islands. Over the last 50 years, the city of Los Angeles has warmed up five degrees. That's not global warming—which is about one degree. Heat waves in the city are becoming more frequent and more intense, and it's affecting our health and impacting air pollution. And it's making our urban environment less comfortable. Why is our city getting hotter so much faster than the rest of the world? What can we do? We can make our city cooler. There are a lot of ways we could change our local environment to reduce the temperature.

I am currently finishing an article based on my students' work for their master's theses on the Los Angeles urban heat island. I'm also on the thesis committee of an environmental sciences master's thesis, in which the student is using urban heat island research for painting Metrolink tracks white, and to monitor rail temperatures in the LA Basin. 

The over-development of the Los Angeles area not only affects the temperature, but also the water cycle. It only takes one inch of rain to flood parts of​ LA, because so much of the land is covered with impervious surfaces. In parks and rural areas one inch of rain just soaks into the ground, but in a city it all runs off and can actually flood the LA River, which was built for flood control. It was designed for the “100 year flood," but because the city has built up so much over the years, the capacity of the river is actually less. There's an NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) project going on now about urbanization and the hydrological cycle in the Los Angeles area, and students will be working on that over the summer. Cal State LA's Barry Hibbs, Ph.D., geosciences and environment professor, along with several faculty mentors, will be leading this urban hydrology research.

Biologists, chemists and environmental engineers throughout the CSU are involved in environmental issues, from marine life to air pollution to energy resiliency in a warmer world. Our campus sustainability director, Brad Haydel, also looks at reducing waste locally, lighting and heat storage. And the CSU has a goal to become carbon neutral.


[ The CSU Sustainability Report, released in 2018, announced several campus's goals to achieve carbon neutrality, and examined the university's progress against its 2014 sustainability goals. In addition, the CSU partnered with the University of California in the Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Project and Summit (ECCLPS) to advance PK–12 environmental and climate change literacy by focusing on the preparation of current and future teachers. Learn more about each CSU campus's commitment to sustainability.] What are some key takeaways that we should learn from the current cleaner air phenomenon?

Dr. LaDochy: I know people are stuck at home and just can't wait to get back to normal. But what is normal? Are people going to go hog-wild buying and consuming? Or are they going to reflect again about their environment? I think this should actually wake more people up to start looking at climate change and air quality and sustainability as bigger issues. Maybe this could speed things up. [Experts say the smog-free skies today could be the tipping point for mass electric car adoption.]

Our lifestyles can change. Working at home, job sharing, working closer to our homes, less commute times, more time with the family. It might be a good thing. So how do you plan a city that reduces that long commute? Changes to the transportation system so that people don't have to drive alone in a car over a hundred miles each day.

We tend to consume more than we need. Big houses. Access to goods from all over the world. Do we really need all that consumption?

There's a lot of waste. We can recycle everything and there doesn't have to be any waste. So how do we do that in an efficient manner? So, in 2020, can we say that we're going to reduce waste? Whether it's air, water, or materials? “I pledge to reduce my waste or reduce my greenhouse gases or my carbon footprint." Even if a small amount of the population does this, it makes a difference.

​That would be a great Earth Day. 



CSU Celebrates 50 Years of Earth Day

​CSU campuses have planned creative ways to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on our world.

​​Find a Virtual Event 

Questions? Please contact our sustainability office at

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