The San Gabriel Mountains are seen from the Interstate 10 in East Los Angeles, Monday, March 30, 2020. Excellent air quality has resulted from business closures during the coronavirus pandemic and recent rain. The area's famous freeway have been nearly empty, but experts say the lack of cars is contributing only a small amount to the clear skies. Researchers are analyzing just how much emissions have dropped. Credit: Damian Dovarganes | AP

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Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a day set aside beginning in 1970 to bring attention to environmental concerns. To say that Earth Day this year is different is a huge understatement.

With more than 2 million cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed around the world and more than 171,000 deaths attributed to the illness, many countries are essentially in lockdown. Most people, other than essential workers, don’t venture far from their homes. Stores and other businesses are shuttered, putting more than 20 million Americans out of work.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Many hospitals, especially in densely populated urban areas, are overwhelmed. It is a grim time.

Yet, around the world, skies are freer from pollution — allowing clear views of the Los Angeles skyline, and the Himalayan Mountains can be seen in parts of India for the first time in generations. Waterways in Italy are flowing clear. Carbon dioxide pollution over China has been dramatically reduced as factories around the world are shuttered or slowed down and far fewer vehicles are on roadways.

We would in no way suggest that this is a good tradeoff, but the cleaner skies and healthier rivers are a reminder that when shuttered factories restart, when more people resume commuting to offices and other workplaces, when grounded passenger planes return the skies, we must continue the work to improve the health of our planet, and its inhabitants.

The coronavirus pandemic also shows the power of innovation and global cooperation.

New tests to detect coronavirus were developed quickly. Vaccine research is advancing at blazing speeds. Maine companies pivoted from making shoes, sails and dog beds to producing face masks and other protective equipment for health care personnel and first responders. Maine distilleries and breweries quickly converted from producing alcohol to making and bottling hand sanitizer. Restaurants and brew pubs went from serving meals indoors to providing food and beverages curbside and by delivery. Hundreds of companies have donated time and goods to helping others.

Once COVID-19 is vanquished, we must harness this power of innovation to tackle climate change, which also threatens our wellbeing, just on a much slower timetable than a global pandemic.

“As we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value,” Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York City told NBC News. “Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy and reduce emissions and pollution?”

We should also not accept using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to roll back environmental protections. Yet, that is what the Trump administration is doing.

In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency told companies they are exempt from reporting and compliance requirements “if compliance is not reasonably practicable” because of the pandemic.

“This is an open license to pollute. Plain and simple,” Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former EPA Administrator under President Barack Obama, said in a press release. “The administration should be giving its all toward making our country healthier right now. … We can all appreciate the need for additional caution and flexibility in a time of crisis, but this brazen directive is an abdication of the EPA’s responsibility to protect our health.”

While much of American was focused on the spread of coronavirus, the Trump administration also rolled back fuel economy standards, which it had long said it planned to do. Lowering gas mileage standards will cost Americans money, worsen the health of many and stall reductions in pollution from vehicles. Several automakers said last year that they would continue with more stringent standards set by California and followed by more than a dozen states, including Maine. The Trump administration has revoked California’s authority to set higher standards, but the state has challenged that move in court.

There isn’t much to celebrate this Earth Day. But, there is some hope in seeing what is possible when Americans — and others around the world — work together to overcome huge challenges.

Watch: What does returning to normal look like?

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...