Climate movement moves online during coronavirus pandemic

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Actress Jane Fonda holds a poster reading “No New Fossil Fuels” in a protest in Los Angeles earlier this month. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

With the covid-19 pandemic forcing Americans to stay indoors, the climate movement is moving online.

Plans for protests and other in-person activism, including massive marches around Earth Day next month where environmentalists wanted to raise concern over rising global temperatures, have been upended by the need for people to stay apart and stop another crisis — the emergence of a novel coronavirus that has infected more than 420,000 and killed more than 18,000 worldwide.

Climate activists are now adjusting to the new reality where most of their activism, at least in the near term, must take place online to forestall the spread of the virus. Young and Internet-savvy activists at the heart of the climate movement say they’re ready for the moment.

“Our generation was built for this,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the youth-led Sunrise Movement which helped launched the Green New Deal. “We’ve spent our entire lives online.

Yet Earth Day planners, who aimed to get millions of Americans marching to commemorate the annual event’s 50th anniversary, are still disappointed they won’t be able to capture media attention with images of protesters packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the streets ahead of the November election.

“Of course, we were looking forward to all of the Earth Day activities,” said Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club. “It was going to be a powerful manifestation of our determination to see stronger action on climate.”

But Brune made clear activists would be out in the streets once public health officials gave them the green light.

“We’ll be out in force at the earliest opportunity all the way to and through this election.”

In the meantime, Earth Day organizers now have a Plan B. They announced Tuesday they will hold a 72-hour live-streamed “digital march” featuring speeches, musical acts and demonstrations of customers cutting up credit cards from financial institutions that underwrite the fossil-fuel industry.

“What we’re trying to do is really show people that you’re not sitting alone in your bedroom doing this, but you are still part of this larger ecosystem of organizers,” said Shiv Soin, a 19-year-old New York University student and lead organizer for the New York City Youth Climate Coalition who is helping put the event together.

Among the first to call for a halt in in-person protests was Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist, who earlier this month asked her Twitter followers to do a “#DigitalStrike” by posting pictures of their placards safely from their homes. (Thunberg wrote online Tuesday that, while she has not been tested, she is recovering from coronavirus-like symptoms.)

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The last two weeks I’ve stayed inside. When I returned from my trip around Central Europe I isolated myself (in a borrowed apartment away from my mother and sister) since the number of cases of COVID-19 (in Germany for instance) were similar to Italy in the beginning. Around ten days ago I started feeling some symptoms, exactly the same time as my father – who traveled with me from Brussels. I was feeling tired, had shivers, a sore throat and coughed. My dad experienced the same symptoms, but much more intense and with a fever. In Sweden you can not test yourself for COVID-19 unless you’re in need of emergent medical treatment. Everyone feeling ill are told to stay at home and isolate themselves. I have therefore not been tested for COVID-19, but it’s extremely likely that I’ve had it, given the combined symptoms and circumstances. Now I’ve basically recovered, but – AND THIS IS THE BOTTOM LINE: I almost didn’t feel ill. My last cold was much worse than this! Had it not been for someone else having the virus simultainously I might not even have suspected anything. Then I would just have thought I was feeling unusually tired with a bit of a cough. And this it what makes it so much more dangerous. Many (especially young people) might not notice any symptoms at all, or very mild symptoms. Then they don’t know they have the virus and can pass it on to people in risk groups. We who don’t belong to a risk group have an enormous responsibility, our actions can be the difference between life and death for many others. Please keep that in mind, follow the advice from experts and your local authorities and #StayAtHome to slow the spread of the virus. And remember to always take care of each other and help those in need. #COVID #flattenthecurve

Her followers responded with images from their bedrooms and backyards.

U.S. climate activists have also modified their demands in light of the pandemic. Some labor unions and green groups, including Sunrise, have rallied around the idea of a “People’s Bailout” to press politicians to direct financial stimulus toward workers instead of oil companies and other corporations.

Tactically, instead of going forward with door-to-door voter registration drives planned around Earth Day in April, Sunrise volunteers plan to use peer-to-peer texting to make sure people have their paperwork to vote in November. And instead of in-person meetings, the group started on Tuesday a series of online classes called “Sunrise School” to train 3,500 young people in campaining.

Fridays for Future, which helped organize weekly student climate protests, asked supporters to instead email politicians, post on social media and organize online strikes on Zoom, the videoconferencing app that has rocketed in popularity since the start of the outbreak.

Activists say they have seen some success with their online organizing efforts.

The League of Conservation Voters, which pumped more than $80 million into the 2018 election, had to cancel an in-person fundraiser in New York last week. Instead, it held a webinar for donors.

“LCV has not held virtual fundraisers before. This is new for us,” spokeswoman Emily Samsel said. Though the group did not disclose how much money it raised, it called the online event a “success.”

And Sierra Club spokesman Adam Beitman said that group saw an “extremely high response rates” to emails calling on members to urge lawmakers not to bail out oil and gas companies.

Still, there are some forms of public pressure — such as cornering politicians and pressing them on their environmental positions, as activists have done several times with former vice president Joe Biden, who is ahead in the race for the Democratic nomination — that simply have no online equivalent.

Bu when it comes to heeding the call from epidemiologists and other public health officials, climate activists say they have no other choice but to listen to the scientists.

“Look, we can’t all go out in the streets. We can’t be doing civil disobedience this time around,” author and environmentalist Bill McKibben said. “That’s because we understand that biology is real and that the coronavirus has to be taken seriously — just in the same way that we understand that physics and chemistry are real and that the carbon dioxide molecule and the methane molecule have to be taken seriously.”