As Oil Plummets, Climate Activists Say Now Is the Time to Mobilize for a Green New Deal

Earth Day is more important now than ever. Here’s how the climate movement is getting organized.

Christine MacDonald April 21, 2020

Campaigners protest during a climate change action day on September 20, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The 50th anniver­sary of Earth Day is Wednes­day, tak­ing place in the very same week demand for oil cratered so bad­ly that prices nose­dived until they were briefly trad­ing in neg­a­tive num­bers. In nor­mal times, these two col­lid­ing his­toric events would be rea­son for cli­mate activists to rejoice. But these are COVID times. And, while this week’s events are prompt­ing plen­ty of reflec­tion, the future seems riski­er and less cer­tain than ever.

Activists and organizations are finding ways to comfort people, share information and resources, train new activists, and push progressive solutions to both crises, while mutual aid efforts have grown.

Some sup­port­ers of a Green New Deal say with oil prices so low, now would be a great time to nation­al­ize oil, end drilling and rebuild a stronger econ­o­my fueled by clean and renew­able ener­gy. This moment is a per­fect exam­ple of the need to loud­ly agi­tate for nation­al­iza­tion of the oil indus­try with a per­ma­nent major­i­ty equi­ty stake for the explic­it polit­i­cal pur­pose of unwind­ing it as rapid­ly as pos­si­ble,” said Sean Estelle, a Nation­al Polit­i­cal Com­mit­tee mem­ber of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca. It’s nev­er been a bet­ter moment to crush a poi­so­nous and destruc­tive indus­try that has hur­tled us into a huge cli­mate cri­sis, and instead invest in a green econ­o­my and retrain­ing for all work­ers that would be affect­ed by this shift.”

On the one hand, Pres­i­dent Trump, who has denied the exis­tence of cli­mate change, has used the pan­dem­ic to roll back envi­ron­men­tal law and push ahead with unpop­u­lar pipeline con­struc­tion in an attempt to lock the coun­try into the cli­mate-chang­ing fos­sil fuel econ­o­my for decades to come. Fel­low Repub­li­can and friend of Big Oil, Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky.), mean­while, blocked even the mod­est renew­able ener­gy stim­u­lus the Democ­rats sought to include in last month’s $2 tril­lion bailout, while both par­ties’ law­mak­ers saw fit to send bil­lions of dol­lars to large cor­po­ra­tions with rel­a­tive­ly few strings attached.

Even as the oil indus­try fights to keep its stran­gle­hold on our future, the last two years have seen an unprece­dent­ed surge in cli­mate activism, lead­ing to the Green New Deal, a pro­posed way out of the cli­mate cri­sis that would put envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice at the fore­front of adap­ta­tion, ensur­ing health­care for all, strong labor and union pro­tec­tions, and good jobs in the new econ­o­my to replace ones that dis­ap­pear as fos­sil fuels and oth­er pol­lut­ing indus­tries give way to a new green econ­o­my. Now, as the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has pro­vid­ed a pre­view of how cli­mate change is expect­ed to cre­ate sim­i­lar dis­rup­tions to sup­ply chains and how social safe­ty nets will fail, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice activists have coun­tered with the People’s Bailout and Green Stim­u­lus. Both pro­pose address­ing pandemic’s eco­nom­ic fall­out by sup­port­ing work­ing peo­ple, rather than giv­ing away bil­lions more to corporations.

But if COVID-19 has laid bare inequities that cli­mate change will only stoke, a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge is fig­ur­ing out how to con­vince a divid­ed and over­whelmed pub­lic of the very real risks of putting off cli­mate action this year, at a time when sci­en­tists say we have less than a decade left to bring down emis­sions and head of dan­ger­ous nat­ur­al tip­ping points. We don’t have much time at all,” Bill McK­ibben, the author and cofounder of 350​.org, said. We prob­a­bly should­n’t just forego one of those years.”

With so many peo­ple seri­ous­ly ill and oth­ers out of work and wor­ried about pay­ing the rent while the econ­o­my lan­guish­es in a reces­sion, cli­mate activists have exchanged street protests for three days of Earth Day Live online activ­i­ties, start­ing Wednes­day. The star-stud­ded ral­ly and con­cert, which will be cap­tured via livestream, will include pan­el dis­cus­sions, teach-ins and poet­ry read­ings. The first Earth Day in 1970 brought 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans into the streets to demand envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions that led fed­er­al laws that clean up U.S. rivers and har­bors, crack down on indus­tri­al pol­luters and pro­tect endan­gered species — many of the same laws that Trump has tar­get­ed for removal since tak­ing office. The Earth Day Net­work, with a mis­sion to diver­si­fy, edu­cate and acti­vate the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment world­wide,” has been con­ven­ing the glob­al envi­ron­men­tal day ever since. In recent decades the enor­mous affair with activ­i­ties in more than 190 coun­tries has come under crit­i­cism for being cap­tured by its cor­po­rate spon­sors, a fact that today’s edgi­er youth cli­mate flank of the move­ment has been intent on changing.

Orga­niz­ers hope to attract more peo­ple to the cli­mate move­ment, even as they wor­ry that online agi­tat­ing is a tepid replace­ment for mas­sive street protest. It does feel much hard­er to gal­va­nize peo­ple to take action because there is just inher­ent­ly less col­lec­tive pow­er in join­ing a mass livestream than join­ing thou­sands of peo­ple in the streets,” said Naina Agraw­al-Hardin, a 17-year-old high school junior from Ann Arbor and an orga­niz­er with the Sun­rise Movement.

But peo­ple are real­ly strug­gling to get food on the table or they just lost their job. That’s a very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stance than busi­ness as usu­al. So it’s been tough” to adapt Earth Day plans to today’s pan­dem­ic real­i­ties, she said. How can we not be tone deaf and real­ly lean into a nar­ra­tive that encom­pass­es both the pain peo­ple are feel­ing right now and the immi­nent loom­ing cli­mate crisis?”

Local groups have embarked in sim­i­lar online piv­ots. In the San Fran­cis­co Bay area, the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion Youth Vs. Apoc­a­lypse was also forced to scrap its orig­i­nal Earth Day plans to mobi­lize even more than the 40,000 peo­ple who took to San Francisco’s streets last Sep­tem­ber for the glob­al cli­mate strike. After long hours of coali­tion build­ing, deter­min­ing the march route and apply­ing for per­mits, 15-year-old activist Sarah Goody recalls the sense of dejec­tion she and her fel­low orga­niz­ers felt one evening last month when they real­ized they were going to have to call the whole thing off, because there could be no street protests in a pan­dem­ic. That was hard but after sit­ting with it for a few days,” Goody says, the amount of incred­i­ble ideas (for mov­ing the protests online) was real­ly inspiring.”

Like Sun­rise and oth­er groups, Goody’s orga­ni­za­tion is also using pan­dem­ic Earth Day to build their orga­ni­za­tions inter­nal­ly and reach out to front­line com­mu­ni­ties, seek­ing to broad­en their coali­tion by draw­ing par­al­lels to between the eco­nom­ic and social fall­out of coro­n­avirus cri­sis and cli­mate change.

In this pan­dem­ic we are see­ing the gov­ern­ment bail­ing out big com­pa­nies instead of poor peo­ple and the mid­dle­class. We feel that the cli­mate cri­sis — and also coro­n­avirus — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and low­er class. And the big oil indus­try and cor­po­ra­tions treat migrant com­mu­ni­ties, indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and low­er class as if they were dis­pos­able,” said Goody, whose orga­ni­za­tion runs envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice clubs at 10 Bay Area schools.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty is tak­ing on a whole new mean­ing this year — albeit online. Activists and orga­ni­za­tions are find­ing ways to com­fort peo­ple, share infor­ma­tion and resources, train new activists, and push pro­gres­sive solu­tions to both crises, while mutu­al aid efforts have grown. The Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work has launched a Covid-19 Mutu­al Aid Fund for strug­gling orga­niz­ers and orga­ni­za­tions right now. Goody’s group has launched its own local mutu­al aid effort using social net­works and will use social media chal­lenges dur­ing the three-day dig­i­tal action to con­tin­ue its cam­paigns tar­get­ing fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies and their investors using hash­tags such as #NoOneIs­Dis­pos­able.

In the Chicagoland area, mean­while, a coali­tion of unions, immi­grant rights orga­ni­za­tions and com­mu­ni­ty groups was already plan­ning Earth Day to May Day, a series of protests and oth­er street actions fight­ing for eco­nom­ic rights and the envi­ron­ment. They had been expect­ing an even big­ger turnout this year, when the pan­dem­ic out­break forced orga­niz­ers to move the protests online. Between these two social jus­tice hol­i­days,” the 67 orga­ni­za­tions, which include work­ers’ cen­ters, immi­grant rights groups, and main­line envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions like the Sier­ra Club, will con­tin­ue to their push for solu­tions that pri­or­i­tize work­ing peo­ple and the plan­et over cor­po­ra­tions, and hold politi­cians account­able — two goals that have emerged as a uni­fy­ing mantra of many of this year’s Earth Day events.

While online activism may not cre­ate the same results as street mobi­liza­tions, there are some upsides, accord­ing to Rober­to Jesus Clack, asso­ciate direc­tor of the Joli­et, Ill.-based Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, part of the Earth Day to May Day Coalition.

It can be pret­ty easy to build an audi­ence quick­ly through online orga­niz­ing,” said Clack, whose cen­ter works at Ama­zon, Wal­mart and oth­er ware­hous­es in the Chicagoland area. A lot of the time, it would take send­ing a TV crew or some­thing like that. Now you just have to hit a link or two and you can hear about an issue.”

With ware­hous­es con­sid­ered essen­tial to keep­ing the country’s sup­ply chains run­ning, Clack said he and his cowork­ers have been busy sup­port­ing ware­house work­ers, includ­ing some who have gone on strike in recent weeks to protest unsafe work­ing con­di­tions. Typ­i­cal­ly it takes numer­ous face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions to orga­nize a workplace.

But with many essen­tial work­ers fear­ful­ly head­ing into work­places with­out face masks, health cov­er­age, or paid leave if they get sick, and so many oth­ers fur­loughed or laid off and sit­ting at home with time on their hands, Clack said, orga­niz­ing can go more quick­ly. After all, life or death mat­ters are on the line and so many work­ing peo­ple are fired up, he said. But he wor­ries the most vul­ner­a­ble are being left out. There’s def­i­nite­ly a por­tion of the move­ment (with­out good Inter­net access) that we’re miss­ing out on right now. It’s going to be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult,” he said. There are seri­ous ways that (the pan­dem­ic) obstructs us from organizing.”

The Earth Day to May Day actions grew out of ear­li­er alliances between peo­ple-cen­tered and envi­ron­ment-cen­tered groups, such as their coali­tion to block the con­tro­ver­sial North­Point Devel­op­ment busi­ness park project that the Joli­et may­or and City Coun­cil vot­ed to push for­ward last week, even as oppo­nents charged them with using the pan­dem­ic to over­rule pub­lic dissent.

We see the same cor­po­rate actors that real­ly dri­ve down work­place stan­dards are also con­tribut­ing huge­ly to cli­mate change,” he said. We have prob­lems with the same peo­ple and we have to come togeth­er” right now, said Clack, who com­pares today’s pan­dem­ic-induced eco­nom­ic trou­bles to the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis that gave way to, among oth­er things, Occu­py Wall Street. He’s upbeat on what this will mean for future protests.

It’s unclear when we’ll be able to hit the streets again,” he said, but I think that the move­ment we see emerge is going to be pret­ty unprecedented.”

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