Earth Day 2020 goes digital: What to know and how to get involved

Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an annual event that usually unites more than 1 billion people who participate in various environmentally friendly initiatives across the globe. This year, organizers are pushing global digital mobilization in a 24-hour call to action, encouraging people to engage in opportunities to make a difference from the comfort of their homes.

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But what exactly is Earth Day? Here's what you need to know:

1. When did Earth Day start?

The first Earth Day celebration took place 50 years ago, in 1970, after a devastating oil spill in America brought environmental issues to the forefront of public consciousness. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 22 million people across the country came out in support of environmental reform.

“That day left a permanent impact on the politics of America,” Gaylord Nelson wrote in the April 1980 edition of the EPA Journal. "It forcibly thrust the issue of environmental quality and resources conservation into the political dialogue of the nation.

“It showed political and opinion leadership of the country that the people cared, that they were ready for political action, that the politicians had better get ready, too. In short, Earth Day launched the environmental decade with a bang.”

Since then, celebrations have only grown. This year, organizers estimate more than 1 billion people in 192 countries will participate in events the world over. The day is celebrated each year on April 22.

2. Is there a theme for Earth Day 2020?

Each year, Earth Day organizers assign a theme for the year’s activism efforts. This year's theme, “Climate Action,” focuses on raising awareness about ways to combat what activists say is a crisis.

“Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable,” Earth Day Network, which partners with tens of thousands of organizations in nearly 200 countries to organize Earth Day events, said on its website.

The organization is encouraging people to seek out ways to reduce their carbon footprint as well as to vote for governed commitments to climate change, including increased national pledges to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“The time is now for citizens to call for greater global ambition to tackle our climate crisis. Unless every country in the world steps up, we are consigning current and future generations to a dangerous future,” Earth Day Network wrote.

Last year’s Earth Day theme was “Protect Our Species,” which focused on helping endangered and threatened species.

3. How are people celebrating?

Normally, thousands of community cleanups are scheduled in hundreds of cities across the world. But this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists are pushing digital engagement. That means attending webinars and participating in virtual protests, discussions and social media campaigns.

“Amid the recent outbreak, we encourage people to rise up but to do so safely and responsibly -- in many cases, that means using our voices to drive action online rather than in person,” Kathleen Rogers, President of Earth Day Network, said in a press release. “Whether it be coronavirus or our global climate crisis, we cannot shut down. Instead, we must shift our energies and efforts to new ways to mobilize the world to action.”

Most notably, Earth Day Live and Earth Day Network are hosting live streams jam packed with content intended to inform, inspire and empower viewers.

Earth Day Live’s event will stream live from April 22 to April 24. Famous figures like Alyssa Milano, Angela Rye, Chelsea Handler and Mark Ruffalo are listed as participants. Earth Day Network will feature performances and calls to action with the help of Zac Efron, Al Gore and Van Jones, among others, on Wednesday only.

4. What are businesses and organizations doing?

Ahead of Earth Day, Apple released a short film last week, available exclusively on Apple+. Narrated by Meryl Streep, “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth,” follows the story of a 7-year-old boy as he learns about the planet.

NASA launched the #EarthDayAtHome campaign, loaded with games, podcasts, videos by scientists and even Lego activities and the chance to make personalized Earth Day gifs.

Microsoft released two new premium theme packs -- ‘Earth Day Natural World 2020’ and ‘Earth Day Living World 2020’ -- which feature various nature-themed images that can be downloaded as computer desktop wallpapers for free.

Best Buy has aggregated numerous products sold by stores and online that promote and support sustainable living, such as energy conservation, composting and “green transportation.”

5. How can I get involved?

There are multiple ways to get into the Earth Day spirit, from participating in an online event to changing your bills from paper to paperless. Here are some suggestions:

  • Urge your local elected officials or businesses to make a substantial tree planting commitment by starting a letter-writing campaign or online petition. Consider planting flowers or trees on your own property.
  • Being mindful of your distance from others who may be outside, pick up trash while walking around a local neighborhood or parks that may be open.
  • Explore a “virtual park,” thanks to the National Park Service.
  • Recycle and cut back on plastic consumption.
  • Watch a film available on and discuss with groups and friends via a video conferencing platform, like Zoom. PBS is also airing “Climate Change - The Facts” a documentary-style show hosted by David Attenborough in which climate scientists explain what could happen if global temperatures increase by 1.5 degrees.
  • Participate in the global conversation on social media using the hashtag #EarthDay2020, plus download posters and graphics to save and share.
  • Make your next meal plant-based.
  • Find virtual events that groups near you are hosting with this map.

“On this Earth Day, as we physically separate ourselves by necessity, we can still collectively appreciate the wondrous beauty of our planet and the extraordinary science that helps us understand how it all works – and we can do it from our homes,” NASA wrote on its website.

See more ways to celebrate Earth Day at home on Earth Day Network’s official website here and here.