This Crisis Can Be a Gateway to Climate Action. These Activists Are Showing How.

Climate justice organizers have moved from the streets to the Internet, where they are trying to scale up the fight.

Christine MacDonald April 3, 2020

350 South Dakota completed this virtual banner on April 3, innovating to make art together to protect their communities during a pandemic. Similar virtual art builds are planned for the Earth Day Climate Strikes and to Cancel KXL. (Photo courtesy of David Solnit/350 South Dakota. Art kit here: bit.ly/ARTKIT)

As the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has left most of the coun­try shel­ter­ing in place and brac­ing for hun­dreds of thou­sands of deaths and eco­nom­ic fall­out that could side­line as much as a third of the U.S. work­force, cli­mate jus­tice war­riors took to the Inter­net this past week to build an online mass move­ment that they are con­struct­ing as they go.

Since the pandemic has forced activists to cancel planned Earth Day street protests this spring, climate and social justice organizations nationwide are scrambling to move online the fight for a just and renewable future.

Pro­pelled by anger over the $500 bil­lion cor­po­rate slush fund” includ­ed in the $2 tril­lion bailout rushed through Con­gress and signed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump last month, hun­dreds of envi­ron­men­tal and social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions have joined forces to demand that the next eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus pack­age Con­gress is expect­ed to pass pri­or­i­tize reg­u­lar peo­ple over cor­po­ra­tions and invest in long-term fix­es to pover­ty and cli­mate change.

Moth­er Nature is fight­ing back,” said Jen­nifer Fal­con, com­mu­ni­ca­tions coor­di­na­tor for the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work. Our response to cli­mate change should be sim­i­lar to our response to Covid-19, because after the pan­dem­ic pass­es, we are still fac­ing a cli­mate cri­sis and chaos is hit­ting com­mu­ni­ties from the arc­tic to the glob­al south.”

The Net­work is among the orga­ni­za­tions — from envi­ron­men­tal stal­warts like Green­peace, the Sun­rise Move­ment and 350​.org to pro­gres­sive groups like the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty — that have ral­lied around pro­pos­als for a social-jus­tice-infused People’s Bailout that would address the cli­mate cri­sis with a clean ener­gy tran­si­tion, rather than prop­ping up the fail­ing oil and gas indus­try and oth­er pol­lut­ing cor­po­ra­tions. The groups also sup­port a detailed Green Stim­u­lus plan, penned by pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic and pol­i­cy experts and guid­ed by five peo­ple-cen­tric prin­ci­pals, includ­ing one that calls on the pan­dem­ic response to build a regen­er­a­tive econ­o­my” fueled by wind and solar.

Since the pan­dem­ic has forced activists to can­cel planned Earth Day street protests this spring, cli­mate and social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions nation­wide are scram­bling to move online the fight for a just and renew­able future. While the focus of the protests planned for Earth Day had been on cli­mate jus­tice, COVID-19 has exposed the woe­ful inad­e­qua­cy, activists say, of the country’s health­care and eco­nom­ic infra­struc­ture, mak­ing the pan­dem­ic anoth­er strong argu­ment for a more holis­tic approach to deal­ing with the country’s thorni­est prob­lems, from crum­bling infra­struc­ture to atro­phied social safe­ty nets, with pro­pos­als like the Green New Deal cham­pi­oned by Sun­rise and many of the oth­er groups.

The last year or so had already seen unprece­dent­ed increas­es in pub­lic con­cern about cli­mate change, and sup­port is on the rise for a com­pre­hen­sive solu­tion, such as the Green New Deal. Since the pan­dem­ic took hold, even more mod­er­ate envi­ron­men­tal groups like the Ceres Investor Net­work and the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil, more close­ly aligned with cor­po­ra­tions than social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions, are also demand­ing a cli­mate-friend­ly U.S. gov­ern­ment pan­dem­ic response to jump­start a low­er pol­lu­tion future. Fatih Birol, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency, also made a plea last month for gov­ern­ments to use pan­dem­ic eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus fund­ing to pri­or­i­tize the many shov­el-ready clean and renew­able ener­gy projects that could set the world on a path to low­er cli­mate chang­ing emissions.

The envi­ron­men­tal move­ment has long been crit­i­cized for fail­ing to fight for work­ing peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple of col­or. For decades those crit­i­cisms had made it too easy for cor­po­ra­tions to pit labor unions and low-income com­mu­ni­ties against envi­ron­men­tal­ists. Those divi­sions have start­ed dis­solv­ing in recent years, how­ev­er, as labor unions and envi­ron­men­tal­ists find more com­mon ground around bat­tles for a just cli­mate tran­si­tion.” This demand is aimed at address­ing long­stand­ing inequities in front­line com­mu­ni­ties and pro­vid­ing retrain­ing and a jobs guar­an­tee to shield work­ers as old econ­o­my indus­tries such as oil and gas and coal fall by the waysides.

As tra­di­tion­al bound­aries blur between activism on envi­ron­men­tal and social jus­tice, and the ranks of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice activists grow, today’s youth-pow­ered cli­mate move­ment is giv­ing this trend a tur­bo-boost. Much has been made of how these impas­sioned teenaged and young-adult activists are dig­i­tal natives,” savvy to the ways of online com­mu­ni­cat­ing. But they are cli­mate jus­tice natives” too, who see the people’s and the planet’s trou­bles as inex­orably linked — and reject the cliché that we must choose between pro­tect­ing the econ­o­my or the environment.

While the ris­ing death and eco­nom­ic tolls ini­tial­ly threw many cli­mate jus­tice groups back on their heels, Car­rie Ramirez, an 18-year-old activist and col­lege fresh­man, thinks some of the gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate respons­es to the pan­dem­ic are pro­vid­ing graph­ic illus­tra­tions of the types of injus­tices faced dai­ly by front­line com­mu­ni­ties. She’s a mem­ber of the San Fran­cis­co area cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion, Youth vs. Apoc­a­lypse, that vis­its pri­ma­ry schools in the Bay Area to talk about envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, a top­ic she thinks has always been hard for the mid­dle- and high-school stu­dents to visualize.

A lot more peo­ple are see­ing how sys­temic injus­tice real­ly takes place and how our lives are [seen as] dis­pos­able. So it’s a real­ly big moment of rad­i­cal­iza­tion for a lot of peo­ple, who weren’t even aware of it ear­li­er,” she said in a phone inter­view from her San Fran­cis­co apart­ment, where she’s shel­ter­ing in place.

Rather than fear that the pan­dem­ic could siphon away grow­ing sup­port for cli­mate jus­tice, Ramirez says, We are build­ing momen­tum because a lot more peo­ple are see­ing how this pan­dem­ic is effect­ing low income com­mu­ni­ties. So, if any­thing, we are not afraid of los­ing momen­tum. We’re just fig­ur­ing out, like every­one else, how we’re going to tran­si­tion from meet­ing in per­son to meet­ing online.”

Ramirez’s group is among more than 800 back­ing the People’s Bailout. Thou­sands of peo­ple around the coun­try tuned into the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party’s Face­book page this week to attend vir­tu­al ral­lies and teach-ins. Those and oth­er online ini­tia­tives, such as Zero Hour’s Get­ting to the Roots of Cli­mate Change” online cam­paign launched Mon­day, aim to inspire activists to kick online action into high­er gear and tie today’s pan­dem­ic into the case for sys­temic change.

Mil­lions of young peo­ple are at home with noth­ing to do,” said Evan Weber, the Sun­rise co-founder and polit­i­cal direc­tor. It’s a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty to cap­ture inter­est and do some­thing mean­ing­ful and productive.”

The youth cli­mate orga­ni­za­tion held its own hour-long video call last Sun­day that was part group bond­ing in the times of the coro­n­avirus, part recruit­ment call for Sun­rise School, its orga­niz­ing 101 course that the group hasti­ly adapt­ed to the new pan­dem­ic and online real­i­ties. Weber said more than 6,000 peo­ple signed up for the online ver­sion of the four-day orga­niz­ing work­shop, 10 times as many as they had expect­ed. A teenag­er named Gretchen, who was one of thou­sands who attend­ed the online Sun­rise School last month, told the hun­dreds of activists on a Zoom call last Sun­day, that get­ting involved had helped her shift the fear lodged in my throat” about the pandemic.

Democ­rats have a clear choice to make: Bail out cor­po­ra­tions and leave work­ing peo­ple behind or invest in peo­ple and our infra­struc­ture that’s proved woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate,” Sunrise’s leg­isla­tive man­ag­er, Lau­ren Maunus, told activists on the group’s Zoom call Sun­day night, lay­ing out the plan to push Joe Biden and par­ty lead­ers to sup­port pro­gres­sive posi­tions on issues such as the People’s Bailout, the Green Stim­u­lus plan and the Green New Deal.

The unfold­ing of a pan­dem­ic dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year has fur­ther ratch­et­ted up the stakes. Cli­mate change was a major pri­ma­ry cam­paign issue among Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­tenders. But with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign in lim­bo, some pun­dits now spec­u­late that for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden, the pre­sumed Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee, can now safe­ly min­i­mize his atten­tion to cli­mate change, an issue he nev­er seemed com­fort­able with as a pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ty. That is one pos­si­bil­i­ty the Sun­rise Move­ment is gird­ing against. Part of its push to recruit and train activists dur­ing the pan­dem­ic lock­downs aims to keep up the pres­sure for a Green New Deal, the group says is the only pro­pos­al com­pre­hen­sive enough to con­front the mul­ti­di­men­sion­al dan­gers of cli­mate change.

Sun­rise, which has start­ed endors­ing polit­i­cal can­di­dates, saw a cou­ple of its con­gres­sion­al favorites win in state pri­maries this win­ter, even as the group’s pres­i­den­tial pick, Bernie Sanders, hasn’t fared so well. The group will fight hard to defeat Trump in Novem­ber regard­less of whether Biden secures the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion, but will use its grow­ing polit­i­cal clout to keep on push­ing for a Green New Deal, said Evan Weber, the Sun­rise co-founder and polit­i­cal director.

One of the rea­sons we launched [Sun­rise] was that the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment was not tak­ing polit­i­cal pow­er seri­ous­ly enough,” beyond sup­port­ing any Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date, he said. A lot of groups had con­fused access with actu­al pow­er” and pri­or­i­tize rela­tion­ships on Capi­tol Hill over account­abil­i­ty, he underscored.

Orga­ni­za­tions, like Sun­rise, Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, 350​.org, and oth­ers push­ing for a Green New Deal, have said all along that the fight will con­tin­ue beyond the Novem­ber elec­tion, but they are try­ing to make the best use of time now, while most peo­ple in the coun­try are forced to stay at home to com­bat the spread of the virus. Last Sunday’s People’s Bailout action, for exam­ple, sent the mes­sage that the peo­ple will not accept more cor­po­rate bailouts, said Antho­ny Rogers-Wright of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance. With so many peo­ple stuck at home right now, he says it’ll be all the eas­i­er for them to flex the pow­er of the peo­ple, albeit in a dig­i­tal format.”

Andrew J. Hoff­man, a busi­ness pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan who stud­ies society’s views of cli­mate change, called the pan­dem­ic a test of the resilien­cy of our insti­tu­tions” and of our­selves and how each of us will react to the cli­mate chal­lenges ahead. So far, he says, it’s been a mixed bag of par­ti­san snip­ing and self-inter­est­ed pan­ic shop­ping. But on the flip side,” he argues, we’ve had tremen­dous giv­ing and coop­er­a­tion. … That should give us some hope that we can deal with cli­mate change.”

We do have to face facts that the world is chang­ing,” he said. We need to devel­op resilient sys­tems pre­pared for the kind of chal­lenge that coro­na has pre­sent­ed us and oth­ers that we haven’t thought through.”

He thinks link­ing the pan­dem­ic to cli­mate change risks set­ting off a back­lash, par­tic­u­lar­ly among cli­mate change deniers, but notes that U.S. views on cli­mate change are unde­ni­ably chang­ing. In the past five years, the num­ber of peo­ple who believe cli­mate change is real and human-caused has been going up steadi­ly even among mod­er­ate to lib­er­al Republicans….This is a shift that has already tak­en place,” he says. The par­ti­san divide is narrowing.”

Nev­er­the­less, pub­lic opin­ion isn’t chang­ing fast enough, con­sid­er­ing that cli­mate sci­en­tists say there’s less than a decade left to reduce cli­mate chang­ing fos­sil fuel emis­sions and ensure the plan­et doesn’t warm more than the 1.5 degrees Cel­sius that is crit­i­cal to avoid nat­ur­al tip­ping points that threat­en life as we know it. And while more Repub­li­cans may believe in cli­mate change today than a year ago, the fight for more peo­ple-cen­tered bailouts and cli­mate poli­cies is going to be as fierce­ly waged online as it would be in per­son, as was pre­viewed in last month’s Wash­ing­ton wrangling.

Democ­rats in Con­gress blocked a bailout for oil and gas com­pa­nies from inclu­sion in the $2 tril­lion stim­u­lus pack­age last month, but Republics nixed pro­posed sup­port for the wind and solar indus­tries and pre­vent­ed tying the $50 bil­lion chan­neled to air­line indus­try to more ambi­tious reduc­tions in air­line emis­sions. The intense back­room lob­by­ing con­tin­ues, as both sides gird for the next stim­u­lus pack­age bat­tle. While most peo­ple are focused on the COVID-19 cri­sis, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has con­tin­ued rolling back the country’s envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions. In a sign that sup­port­ers of the old fos­sil fuel econ­o­my are using the shock of the pan­dem­ic to pre­pare for future fights, three states just out­lawed in-per­son protest­ing at oil and gas installations.

But can online activism replace peo­ple in the streets in this cru­cial year for cli­mate action? Will it lim­it the involve­ment of vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, which are less like­ly to have Inter­net at home? Fal­con from the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work says radio and pod­casts have proved more effec­tive par­tic­u­lar­ly on reser­va­tions and remote indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties where Inter­net access is lim­it­ed and expensive.

Bill McK­ibben, 350​.org cofounder, wor­ries that online actions make it hard­er to attract new peo­ple to the move­ment. You have to work hard to make sure that you don’t just default to the already engaged,” he says.

He’s also not so sure whether most peo­ple will equate the pan­dem­ic as one more rea­son for the sweep­ing sys­temic changes 350​.org, Sun­rise and oth­er groups are push­ing for. I’d set­tle for peo­ple decid­ing that real­i­ty is real, and can bite us hard,” he wrote in an email. Clear­ly the virus is mak­ing this point about biol­o­gy; cli­mate change requires that we take physics and chem­istry with sim­i­lar seriousness.”

Despite the cur­rent moment’s risks, Rogers-Wright of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance also sees unique­ly pow­er­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties online to broad­en the movement’s base. It’s real­ly one of our only choic­es right now, so how do we use the time to reshape the nar­ra­tive for every­thing that we want?”

Online cam­paigns, he points out, can reach more of the coun­try and devel­op new local lead­ers using the same online tar­get­ing tac­tics adver­tis­ers use to build a diverse grass­roots move­ment across the country.

We’ve had three people’s cli­mate march­es and the cli­mate cri­sis has got­ten even worse,” he points out. So if we can use this moment to recap­ture the nar­ra­tive and go on offense with our nar­ra­tive that’s in itself would be a tremen­dous win.”

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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