The Coronavirus Is Forcing the Climate Movement to Reimagine Itself

The Coronavirus Is Forcing the Climate Movement to Reimagine Itself

Earth Day was supposed to be part of a week of mass mobilizations in late April. Protestors were going to rally in the streets. Students were going to gather on their university campuses to demand they divest from fossil fuels. Those too young to vote were planning to knock on doors and educate voters about the reality that their future was at stake at the ballot box in November.

They can’t do that anymore due to the risk of the covid-19 pandemic. Even if they wanted to get together, many governments have flat out banned gatherings to protect public health through at least April.

Instead, participants will be taking similar actions online. And the plans for Earth Day are part of a larger gear change for the climate movement, which has traditionally relied on mass gatherings and strikes to build momentum, following in the footsteps of other successful movements, including women’s suffrage, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights. But the climate movement could pave a new way forward.

Youth climate strikers have already begun digital striking, but revamped plans around Earth Day will take those efforts even further. Organizers have planned a 72-hour live stream where experts will give webinars, musicians will perform, and activists can gather to bring what they’re calling Earth Day Live into American homes. They’ll still be targeting banks that fund fossil fuel extraction and trying to register voters through texting.

“We definitely are using this as an opportunity to really start to reimagine what social movements look like in the digital age,” Katie Eder, executive director of Future Coalition, a youth-led environmental group helping organize Earth Day Live, told Earther. “And that’s what I think is really cool about this. As horrible and painful and terrible as this time is, there are ways to find silver linings by understanding that there’s never been a social movement that’s utilized technology in a way that we’re going to have to in order to get our message heard and still bring people together in a digital way.”

Unfortunately, the movement may see more people tune out as they struggle to deal with unemployment, isolation while sick, or the general stress of the moment we’re all living in. Their current strategy also relies on people having internet access. While 89 percent of U.S. households in 2016 had a computer or smartphone, that still leaves 11 percent without one. Among those households with only a smartphone, the majority were black, Latinx, or low-income.

What that means is that activists within the climate movement will likely only reach those who already care about the issue instead of those who remain disengaged or misinformed—aka the ones they really need on their side. Mass mobilizations have historically been spaces to bring together different groups, such as the civil rights movement partnering with labor unions and religious organizations during the March on Washington in 1963.

“The problem is that when you’re doing stuff online, you’re speaking to the already-engaged community,” Dana Fisher, the director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, told Earther. “It’s very hard to change hearts and minds by yelling to people who already agree with you.”

In-person socializing can also build the trust and power needed to fortify a movement. Those connections can happen at big marches or other gatherings.

“The strengths of the climate justice movement is certainly in its in-person time and its relational organizing, really trying to build strong relationships within communities,” Corrie Grosse, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, told Earther. “That’s kind of the core of where the movement has been heading in recent years, working to build coalitions and relationships of trust. That’s been really critical.”

That covid-19 is shutting that down and forcing activists to communicate digitally doesn’t mean the movement will fail, though. And, as awful as it may sound, the virus may be just the opportune moment climate activists have been waiting on to put forth their transformative agenda toward a green, clean economy. And not just clean but just with robust protections for people and workers that allow everyone the opportunity to thrive.


Successful social movements have historically had three key ingredients: focus, leadership, and resources. Without a clear focus, demands may become too broad to win. Without leadership, a movement might not have someone to help bring in the financial resources to win. Without resources, organizers will struggle to sustain their campaigns.

That’s not always the case, but social scholars use these factors to predict how well a movement may do, Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at the Indiana University Bloomington, told Earther.

“When it comes to the social world, it’s not like a physics laboratory where things happen 100 percent of the time,” he said. “The social world is probabilistic, and the thing about the social world is it’s often complex.”

The climate movement meets most of the requirements Rojas lays out. That includes a clear focus to remake the economy free of carbon pollution, new leaders like Greta Thunberg as well as ones who have sounded the alarm for years like Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, and resources to succeed.

When it comes to resources, these groups don’t appear to be struggling even in a time of social distancing. Rojas noted that resources don’t necessarily mean cash. They can be, among other things, people, office space, partners, skills, and fundraising abilities. A number of these things are available to the climate movement even in its remote form.

Zoom has become a key organizing tool to replace offices. Fundraising has shifted online as well, even before the pandemic. And climate groups full of teens and young adults have plenty of knowledge on how to get their message out on Twitter, TikTok, and other digital platforms.

There are already signs of how the movement is using these tools to recreate their in-person organizing sessions. Greta’s Friday for Future group is doing its own sort of digital teach-ins with experts gathering to talk about various facets of the climate crisis. The Sunrise Movement launched Sunrise School, an activist training program that includes diving into the connection between the coronavirus and the climate.

The latter illustrates how the pandemic could help galvanize the climate movement. In the case of the climate crisis, the coronavirus may help refine its focus in stark new ways.

That’s because the environmental movement isn’t just about recycling or riding bikes. The movement is about creating well-paying jobs through a transition to clean energy, cleaning up communities that have suffered air and water pollution at the hands of fossil fuel companies, and protecting the workers who have spent their lives working for that same dirty industry.

This crisis may serve as a catalyst to strengthen and expand their work, Daniel Faber, the director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University, told Earther. That’s especially true if activists show the parallels between both crises by highlighting the abuse of power from both governments and polluters that ultimately fuel climate change. The coronavirus is also exposing how weak our current socioeconomic systems and safety nets are, including letting down the most vulnerable.

“The economic disruptions that are going to occur around the virus are going to be severe, and they reveal a lot of the inadequacies that exist around the healthcare system and so forth,” he said. “There’s going to be tremendous social anger about the way this pandemic is being handled, and the way that people are going to be hurting in the future around the impact of the pandemic is going to lead to a lot of social outrage and political mobilization.”

Faber wants to see organizers secure wins on affordable housing and healthcare and then link these issues back to the climate crisis. This is the time to remind folks climate justice is housing justice is economic justice is health justice is racial justice. You can’t have any without the other. The movement and some politicians in Congress were already making those connections before the pandemic.

As the federal government begins to plan a long-term response to the economic devastation communities are suffering as a result of covid-19, it will only become more important to keep highlighting those connections. The challenge for the movement will be doing that without in-person visits and protests on the Capitol.

“The old world was built for in-person advocacy,” Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America director for 350.org, told Earther. “The world of surprising someone at a meeting, taking over their agenda, all those projects that have been visual representations of the struggle people are experiencing.”

Regardless, she feels confident in the movement’s ability to survive this. The group is sharing digital tools with partner groups and regional members around the U.S. that may lack some of the tech-savviness of the international organization. And it has gained a lot of experience helping with climate disasters and learning from their aftermath. 

“We’ve been working on just recovery for a long time,” O’Laughlin said. “If we’re not thinking about people and planet, we weren’t doing our jobs then and we won’t be doing it now.”

Still, there’s a lot activists need to figure out if digital organizing remains their only option through 2020. The pandemic won’t last forever, but it may last long enough to leave a sizable footprint on their long-term plans. Past movements don’t offer much guidance on how to push forward during such a global health crisis. So activists are looking forward, figuring it out as they go. These groups do know, however, they can’t quit applying pressure on leaders to take action. That’s why they plan to focus efforts on the election ahead.

Donald Trump has used the pandemic to suspend environmental enforcement and regulation. Another four years of him would be disastrous for the planet. If he’s out of the White House, though, organizers may finally be able to push through their plans to transform our energy economy.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, the country was at its lowest point in the Great Depression. How did he respond? By creating a New Deal to build out key infrastructure projects and create jobs. A new president in the White House can leave behind another legacy of economic reform. Climate activists can help make this happen if they seize the moment and hold onto those 2020 visions they dreamed up long before the coronavirus.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Not to be an old cynical fuck, but one of the problems with environmental youth movements, say over the past 50 odd years, has been that youths tend to age and move on with their lives at some point. Yet the issue spurring the movement remains. And given the fickleness of youth, the issue of the current youth grouping isn’t of interest to the next grouping. Another problem is youths are highly coveted for marketing purposes, i.e. an easy sale. Silicon Valley taught us that gadgets and social media platforms sell like hot cakes to the coveted demo.

One possible reason why there’s so much pushback on addressing climate change, besides money and general assholery, is that a lot of expertise supporting the status quo in areas such as communications, PR/persuasion, law, finance, entertainment, consulting, industry, politics, and whatever else isn’t youthful. In general, most of the expertise supporting the status quo are highly skilled and worldly wise oldish and older folks. That doesn’t mean that a best and brightest white-shoe lawyer working for big oil today wasn’t stoked about the environment back in high school and college.