Amid widespread shut-downs across the world in response to the coronavirus spread, climate strike organizers are getting creative.
Fridays for Future, the youth movement started by Greta Thunberg in 2018, is leveraging social media to encourage online campaigning.
We spoke with Kallan Benson, of Fridays for Future, last summer, as she was busy organizing strikes and supporting strikers across the country. On September 20, she spearheaded the climate strike in Washington, D.C., where more than 10,000 people marched up Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol.
“It was fantastic day all around,” she said. “I always go into things hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. It definitely exceeded my expectations.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a protest of that size that was so intergenerational. Usually, it’s mostly adults, and just seeing the mix of kids who can barely walk up to our elders is incredibly exciting.”
She has also since met Greta in person; they both accepted Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award and did some work striking and lobbying at the Capitol.
This flurry of in-person activities came to a halt two weeks ago, in light of the coronavirus spread. So, last Friday, Kallan and her family picked up trash around the neighborhood instead. “We tried to keep a little bit of the physical aspect while still respecting social distancing,” she said. “We’re making sure not to bump into anybody and taking as many precautions as possible.”
And she encourages youth around the world to do the same: “I’ve been starting to emphasize that anything you can do for yourself — whether that is picking up trash or eating a low-carbon meal or paying attention to what you’re doing in your house to reduce your carbon footprint — is fantastic. It makes you think about the issue more. If you are in a family setting, it might mean sparking a conversation within your family.”
Kallan explained that taking these actions public is important too.
“Being out there every Friday, that consistency really sets us apart. So if you can do an action for yourself, put it on social media. Have a conversation with a friend or a neighbor,” she said. “That’s keeping the spirit of what we do alive, even if we can’t physically strike.”
Fridays for Future maintains digital strike accounts on social media. On March 26, they will begin #TalksForFuture, online webinars with leading scientists, journalists, and activists. And while the COVID-19 crisis persists, Kallan and other Fridays for Future members have weekly Zoom calls to get together (virtually) and make signs.
“We’re doing our best to take personal actions, but to make it more of a social activity without actually getting together,” she said.
Kallan and her counterparts around the country, and the world, are encouraging kids and teens to adhere to local guidelines for their own and their communities’ wellbeing. And in the meantime, they hope their peers will continue to make noise.
“We have to make sure that we’re staying connected and keep the movement together in this time of crisis, so that once we have pulled out, we can come back as strong as ever.”
Other grassroots organizations are similarly ramping up their digital efforts—and insist that this could be the start of significant change in addressing climate change.
“We can’t just return to business as usual once this pandemic has died down,” Thanu Yakupitiyage said. “We actually have the opportunity now to really change the way we do things, to really take the climate crisis at-large seriously, and to build the world that we want.”
Thanu is the Head of U.S. Communications for 350.org, a global organization started a decade ago by Bill McKibben and several of his students to curb the fossil fuel industry.
From the outset, 350’s core mission has remained the same. Thanu explained, “Our three principals are (1) to accelerate a transition to 100% renewable energy through bold climate auctions (so pushing leaders to prioritize community-led energy solutions); (2) to phase out all coal, oil, and gas projects because of the correlation between fossil fuel projects and emissions; and (3) to divest, de-sponsor, and defund fossil fuel companies.”
The organization works across 60+ countries and has over 180 staff members. Needless to say, its efforts have shifted in this time of crisis. For now, the focus is on governments’ responses to COVID-19.
“We’re taking the pandemic very seriously,” Thanu said. “We recognize that this is more than just a public health crisis. It’s also a crisis of rising xenophobia, lack of access, and inequity. So we are working with a broad coalition of both climate and environmental groups to really push on Congress to pass a stimulus package that actually centers around people. We’re part of this effort called People Not Profits, and we’re watching the stimulus packages in Congress really closely.”
And citizens can keep doing their part from home. “We’ve been doing a lot of work to activate our base around calling their senators and congressmen to ensure that the stimulus package does not have bailouts for corporations, including the fossil fuel industry,” Thanu said, “and that it’s really focused on health and making sure that people get the best healthcare possible in this COVID-19 crisis.”
Over the next few weeks, 350.org will be offering online teach-ins and webinars. Like many of their counterparts, Earth Day mobilizations will go digital. “We have this campaign called Climate Congress 2020 that pushes for climate champions in the Congress and Senate, all the way up to the presidential level,” Thanu noted. That campaign, and others, are being retooled. Lobby visits, for example, are going digital. 350.org offers resources for how people can continue to move the needle from home.
“I think our role as an organization, especially while people are stuck at home, is to help people really envision the kind of world that we want to see, that phases out fossil fuels, that prioritizes and builds jobs in a 100% renewable economy. That a world that has healthcare for all, that prioritizes human rights over corporations.”
While the COVID-19 crisis continues to reveal its sweeping effects around the world, Thanu and Kallan both agree that there are lessons to be learned.
Communities around the world have responded swiftly — and drastically — to the public-health threat with social distancing efforts, health messaging, and city-wide shut-downs. This, both Kallan and Thanu expressed, means we can do the same in response to the climate crisis.
“Coronavirus seems like a much more immediate threat,” Kallan said. “Climate change is so broad and it’s one of those things that happens gradually, but we have the ability to change. And when we actually accept that this is a crisis, we will change.”
Thanu echoed this sentiment. “We always hear from governments that we can’t do things that quickly. One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic is that when there is a will, there is a way. If we mobilize at this level that we have for the coronavirus pandemics, we will be able to tackle the climate crisis.”