When world leaders met for the latest round of U.N. climate talks in Madrid last December, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to call for action on the climate crisis. This capped off a year of unprecedented climate-related mass uprisings, with millions of people all over the world participating in movements like the Fridays For Future climate strikes.
While there’s no reason to think public concern about climate change has dissipated any in 2020, it is certainly hard to focus on much beyond the COVID-19 pandemic right now. In fact, with that in mind — and to prevent a possible new wave of virus infections — the U.N. recently announced the postponement of COP26 to some yet-to-be-determined date next year. Beyond the logistics of adapting to a new COP schedule, climate activists are being forced to confront an even bigger question: how to keep building the movement for climate justice in an age of global pandemic?
On the positive side of things, the movement has adapted successfully to disruptive global events in the past. Just a couple of weeks before COP21 in 2015, Paris — the host city — was hit by a deadly series of terrorist attacks that killed more than 120 people. The ability to hold mass street actions was suddenly cast into doubt as security clamped down on the city. Yet climate activists still had a presence at COP21 and came away with the Paris Agreement, probably the most important climate document the U.N. process has been able to produce.
Another example of activist resiliency occurred last fall, when climate groups — planning to mobilize for COP25 in Santiago, Chile — were forced to change course after the talks were moved to Madrid at the last moment in response to Chile’s social unrest. With barely more than a month to plan, activists in Madrid managed to pull off one of the largest demonstrations to ever take place at a COP meeting, including a march with about 500,000 people.
The responses to these earlier disruptions suggest that — in an emergency — the climate movement can adapt very quickly to new circumstances. However, the effects of COVID-19 are much wider reaching than either of those earlier events and have impacted climate organizing all over the world to a far greater degree. The barriers to building a mass movement when large street mobilizations are impossible are very real. But for a movement led largely by young people — the most internet-savvy generation in history — keeping the momentum going without being able to meet in person may not be quite as difficult as it seems.
Climate organizing goes online
“We’ve actually seen increased attendance on our calls since the COVID-19 stay-at-home order,” said high school senior Hridesh Singh of New York Youth Climate Leaders, an organization of middle school, high school and college students pushing for state-level climate action. No state has been hit harder by COVID-19 than New York, but the pandemic has hardly interrupted young climate activists’ planning there. While many students have had their remote coursework reduced to the minimum needed to finish out the school year, groups like New York Youth Climate Leaders have continued working, communicating through online tools like Zoom and Slack. “Everyone being quarantined means we’re able to spend more time organizing,” Singh said.
Climate groups are even implementing their own, alternative online schooling programs. In late March, Sunrise Movement introduced Sunrise School, which the organization describes as “an online training program designed to develop thousands of young leaders and introduce them to the fight for a Green New Deal.” By helping students connect with each other remotely, learn about how the climate crisis overlaps with systems of oppression, and develop grassroots organizing skills, Sunrise School aims to ensure young climate activists are ready to fight harder than ever after the threat of COVID-19 lifts.
Zero Hour, another national group, is also helping students continue their education while schools are closed. Last month, the youth-led organization launched a multi-week webinar version of its existing Getting to the Roots Campaign, which prepares young people to be ambassadors for climate justice. The program involves digging into the racist, patriarchal and colonial roots of the climate crisis. “Getting to the Roots highlights the reasons why we fight for climate justice, rather than just mainstream environmentalism,” said Rachel Lee, a resident of North New Jersey and organizer with Zero Hour New York City.
There’s no denying some actions and organizing simply cannot be moved online. Lee had been involved in planning a Northeast Zero Hour summit for April, but the organizers now hope to be able to hold it sometime this summer. “Most of Zero Hour NYC’s communication is online anyway, so that hasn’t really changed,” she said. “But it’s definitely a disappointment to have to move important in-person organizing opportunities to a later date.”
The climate movement’s next mass mobilization is set to kick off on Earth Day — and rather than reschedule, activists have decided to move it online as much as possible. The action, originally conceived as a three-day climate strike with protests targeting elected leaders and financial institutions, will now be replaced by a livestream from April 22-24. Day one will focus on telling stories from communities affected by the climate crisis, with nationally-broadcast content and windows of time set aside for regional organizations to stream their own, locally relevant information. Day two will highlight the role of banks in funding the fossil fuel industry. On day three activists will hold a mass online voter registration drive.
“It’s definitely different from an in-person strike,” said Lee, who is planning for the livestream in North Jersey. “But overall, the motivation to make something big happen is still there.”
It is notable that many steps the government is taking in response to COVID-19 sound remarkably like the types of actions that could turn the corner on climate change.
Activists are also experimenting with strategies for conveying their concerns directly to lawmakers, even without in-person meetings. New York Youth Climate Leaders is adept at this, having already held Zoom meetings with state legislators in the past. In New Jersey, climate groups had originally planned to hold a people’s hearing on the Green New Deal as part of their Earth Day mobilization. “Now we’re doing a modified, online people’s testimony instead,” said high school senior Ananya Singh (no relation to Hridesh Singh above). “It will use videos, art and storytelling to get our message across.”
The New Jersey people’s hearing was going to be accompanied by actions at the offices of Gov. Phil Murphy and Congressman Frank Pallone, chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The impact of such events, where large groups of people show up in person to send their message directly to key decision makers, can only be partially duplicated through online actions. Similarly, perhaps the most important lesson from last year’s mass climate mobilizations is that there’s simply no substitute for getting thousands or millions of people in the streets. Still, online organizing is providing a way to keep building the movement’s momentum until in-person actions are once again possible.
Meanwhile, as activists wait to be able to take their message back to lawmakers’ physical offices and into the streets, the government’s own response to the COVID-19 crisis is bolstering some of the arguments climate groups have been making for a long time.
Exposing the myth of climate helplessness
According to 18-year-old climate activist and Zero Hour founder Jamie Margolin, writing in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Our leaders have demonstrated a sudden, passionate willingness to make corporations completely modify the way they operate and to shame people into changing their habits” in an effort to combat COVID-19. “All of this contradicts the usual excuses for climate inaction.”
‘This pandemic is a preview of what could happen to our world if we don’t adequately address the climate crisis. Only it’s going to be tenfold worse.’
Short of outright climate change denial, there is probably no tool fossil fuel interests have wielded more effectively than the argument that it’s just not feasible to take meaningful action on climate change. Yet, the response to COVID-19 belies this idea of climate helplessness. Within a remarkably short span of time, Congress has passed multiple pieces of major new legislation to rapidly mobilize trillions of dollars. Governors have persuaded millions of people to quickly change their behavior in service to a greater good. Even the 2009 U.S. stimulus bill — a one-time legislative intervention in the economy that was never repeated — pales in comparison to what is happening today.
It is notable that many steps the government is taking in response to COVID-19 sound remarkably like the types of actions that could turn the corner on climate change: injecting trillions of dollars into key parts of the economy, ordering corporations to quickly mass-produce certain technologies, widespread campaigns to get people to change their behavior while recognizing that government action is also essential. These are the sorts of actions groups like Sunrise Movement, which advocates for a sweeping Green New Deal, have long been calling for. At the same time, the pandemic itself is preparing us for our coming climate reality.
“COVID-19 shows us something similar to what continued climate change is going to look like,” said Sam DiFalco, a recent college graduate and climate activist from New Jersey. “The spread of infectious disease is something we’re going to see a lot more of. But there’s also the question of how we respond with compassion and justice for everyone when these disasters hit.”
While the spread of COVID-19 itself does not appear to be directly linked to climate change, scientists have long predicted deadly viruses will migrate to new parts of the globe as climate patterns shift. It’s also important to remember that in a world of climate chaos, pandemics are likely to be compounded by extreme weather events and many other disasters hitting simultaneously. “This pandemic is a preview of what could happen to our world if we don’t adequately address the climate crisis,” said Hridesh Singh. “Only it’s going to be tenfold worse.”
Climate activism in a world on pause
It remains to be seen if large segments of the public will make these connections. But if they do, it will be in no small part thanks to the work of the climate movement itself.
‘COVID-19 has helped give us an understanding that we can build solidarity with each other and fight back in a global crisis.’
“I think it’s interesting that COVID-19 came at this particular time,” Hridesh Singh said. “Last year was clearly the year of climate globally — with mass climate strikes, extreme weather disasters across the world, the rise of the Green New Deal and even some politicians making climate change their top priority issue.” Singh believes this attention on climate change in 2019 means it’s more likely people will see the parallels between the effects of the pandemic and those of climate change, or the response to COVID-19 and what’s needed to combat the climate crisis.
The spread of COVID-19 is a global tragedy unlike anything in recent memory. However, in contrast to the situation with climate change, there is a clear end in sight even if no one knows exactly when it will come. When quarantines and social distancing measures lift, the climate movement will have a chance to pick up where it left off in late 2019. How successfully it manages to do this will likely depend on whether the movement can make the most of this time when public events around the world are essentially on pause.
“COVID-19 has helped give us an understanding that we can build solidarity with each other and fight back in a global crisis,” DiFalco said. “Hopefully we can use the online work and public education we’re doing during this time to emerge from the pandemic crisis with a stronger climate movement, ready to take on the systems that have gotten us into this position in the first place.”