LESSONS ABOUT CLIMATE ACTIVISM AND ITS ROLE IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

MAY 1, 2020

By Helena Bennett (link to advocate page)

The awakening of one crisis doesn’t eradicate the damage that another crisis inflicts upon us. While our reality has been turned upside, the reality of climate change has not. At the start of April, Cyclone Harold hit Pacific Island nations, devastating the lives of inhabitants of Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji. The cyclone initiated a breakdown of lockdown procedures that were in place to protect people against the Coronavirus. In mid-April, an oil pipeline burst in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon, bringing desolation to the Indigenous people who live in the region. At a time when these indigenous people are already suffering due to the spread of COVID, the burst pipeline was a stark reminder that the climate crisis continues to ravage lives.

The climate crisis stops for no one. Especially not for a pandemic.

Two of the biggest international climate change conferences in the world have been postponed this year due to Coronavirus: COP26 and SB50. The delay of these events is of course necessary to protect the health of attendees yet damaging to the fight against the climate crisis. In the absence of these high-profile conferences, it is more pressing than ever that climate change stays on the radar of those in power, and climate activism is a great way of achieving this.

In March this year I participated in the Young Green’s 30 Under 30 programme, and alongside other things, learned a great deal about issue-based campaigning. While activism isn’t necessarily the same as campaigning, it was obvious to me that many parallels could be drawn between the two, and therefore lessons I learned from campaigning experts could be applied to activism. For example, the mapping of relevant stakeholder and who a campaign should be targeting resonated with a message of post-COVID green recovery I was conveying on social media. This led me to direct my activism towards MPs: I wrote a letter based on an essay I had written about post-COVID policy recommendations pertaining to sustainability and shared it with my followers on social media. Since then, I have shared this letter over 250 times, and received feedback which includes an MP who is circulating the ideas in the letter to her senior colleagues at BEIS.

The 30 Under 30 programme also left me with a swathe of knowledge about the importance of local politics. Although local elections have been postponed, ever-pertinent is the need for a decentralisation of policies and autonomy over decisions made a local level. Regarding COVID and sustainability, new forms of localised activism are forming during lockdown; people are planting seeds for food in their gardens, taking longer walks in nature and contemplating their neighbourhoods without traffic jams and frequent train services rushing by. While central government continues to fail us, we can look to local solutions to environmental problems, and local activists are leading the way by bringing communities together and showing it can be done.

One of the largest issues I am currently relating my activism to is the need for green economic recovery. The loss the economy has suffered during the pandemic is significant, and if we reach a state of recession, large boosts will need to be given to the economy through state-aid. There is a huge opportunity here for this aid to be sustainable; support from green projects and renewable energy would create jobs and revive the economy to its previous levels. Additionally, bailouts given to polluting businesses, such as airlines, could be given in exchange for low-carbon commitments, rather than in exchange for nothing. Continued demands from climate activists could see this type of change implemented at state level. If we’re smart about it.

To tackle the poverty of the Great Depression in the 1930s, President F. D. Roosevelt designed the New Deal, a set of policies and investments to boost the struggling economy of the USA. But it was ultimately a top-down revolution that empowered the government to do what it wanted, rather than what was best for citizens. This time, we need a Green New Deal to revive the economy post-corona and bring equity to society. And this time, it should be driven from the bottom up; from grassroots movements; from activism. As Naomi Klein says in On Fire: “We need wind and solar that is community owned rather than a highly centralised monopolistic system. We need to devolve power and resources to Indigenous communities, smallholder farmers, ranchers, rather than handing over control of conservation to the military and federal agencies”. A Green New Deal doesn’t just bring “green” policies. It brings policies that support marginalised communities by getting their input. It doesn’t just tackle climate change; it tackles inequality and poverty. It doesn’t just help the few, it helps everyone.

The growing movement of the #ClimateStrikeOnline has garnered attention from some of the most well-known names within the climate activism movement, such as Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin. Thousands of students take to social media every Friday to show their support for the movement and show our leaders that we haven’t forgotten about the fight against climate change. We can elevate the stories of others’ through social media; of those suffering in the Amazon from oil spills or of those on fragile islands who are no longer safe from raging storms or Coronavirus. We can utilise the power of technology to talk to people from the other side of the world and attend educational webinars to learn about solutions to climate change that we don’t usually have time for.

Although we can't be on the streets, we still protest.

In fact, the issue of accessibility to physical interactions with other activists has made visible the accessibility barriers that exist to the disabled. While I wholeheartedly refute the phrase “the pandemic is an equaliser” when referring to everybody being equally impacted (a mere glance at the US healthcare system brings this phrase to its knees), it is completely relevant when considering our ability to participate in activism. This pandemic has taught me that our activism needs to be more inclusive; intersectional to the point that not a single person doesn’t feel like they can be an activist. And not just regarding physical accessibility but breaking down the idea that you have to be loud and vocal. Simply voting in a certain way makes you an activist. Supporting a worthy cause makes you an activist. Chatting to your friends and family about an issue you find particularly pertinent is activism.

When this pandemic is over and we feel safe in our own communities once more, the looming climate crisis will still be here, watching over us as we settle back into our routines. The devastation that COVID has caused has taught us many things, but the biggest may be that we are not ready to tackle another big crisis any time soon. We’ll need all the activists we can get to ensure we survive.