The Future of Climate Activism After Covid-19

What does activism look like in a world changed by Covid-19? We investigate the impact coronavirus is already taking on climate action, and how it might alter the environmentalism of the future

Remember precedented times? They seem like a distant memory. In our Brave New World, changed by the invisible threat of Covid-19, we are accelerating at lightspeed towards an unknown future. The knowledge that we’re living through history is all the more surreal if your own days have slowed into a kind of valium dream punctuated only by state-sanctioned daily exercise, paranoid grocery store trips and aborted attempts to finish Wolf Hall

But while our days seem to be blurring into a haze, this week has been a time to take stock and put life into perspective. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an annual, global event that celebrates the planet and champions the environmental cause. Like all collective events, this week’s programme has been impacted by coronavirus, with online actions and talks taking place instead of the planned IRL gatherings. To mark the occasion, we take a look at how Covid-19 will impact climate activism in the future.

Globally the communities that are most at risk from coronavirus are also the ones that are fighting climate change on a daily basis

It’s a future that begins right now, because while much of life has moved indoors, climate activism hasn’t stopped. “Everyone's going round saying coronavirus is a great leveller but it's not at all,” says Anna Vickerstaff, a senior campaigner with 350.org. “It's a magnifying glass on existing injustice. Globally the communities that are most at risk from coronavirus are also the ones that are fighting climate change on a daily basis. For a lot of people there isn't a choice to pause and focus just on coronavirus right now because climate change is the lived reality for people around the world and in the global south, along with the impact of fossil fuel extraction and land grabbing in their territories.” 

Climate activism, then, is arguably more necessary than ever. Deforestation of the Amazon is already associated with the spread of illness in indegenous communities, such as malaria. Now scientists fear the practice could lead to a future pandemic, as well as worsening the current one. 

According to Montabay, it is established that new diseases tend to arise at the cross-section between forest and agribusiness, mining, and other such activities; but these practices have not slowed in the wake of the virus. Deforestation is currently escalating in the Amazon, amid reports of land invasions and killings of indigenous leaders. In the Ecuadorian section of the river, indigenous people have been left homeless by extreme rainfall and flooding, but the government has been slow to act with some attributing this to the pressure on resources caused by coronavirus.

“I'm in contact with some indigenous communities in Latin America,” Vickerstaff continues, “and coronavirus is already on the edge of their territories. They're not built in a way that is resilient to this invasive virus. In the same way, these communities are having to resist the invasion of the fossil fuel industry into their spaces.”

For activists with internet access, organising cannot stop. Atlas Sarrafoğlu is a 12-year old Fridays for Future climate striker who lives in Istanbul. Their first school strike in Turkey attracted 700 people as well as press attention, but at a time of social distancing, such events are now impossible to run. “We were supposed to have our fifth Global Climate Strike on April 3 in a busy city centre in Istanbul,” Sarrafoğlu says. 

“My Fridays For Future peers and I have been getting ready for this for a long time. But when Covid-19 started taking over our lives and our plans we turned to digital platforms. We had our press briefing on Zoom and then we had people attending our Zoom call taking their turns to speak. Then in the evening we had musicians making small live concerts on Instagram, standing in solidarity with us. It was our first one, we were not very experienced on it but we did a brilliant job. Now every Friday we are doing our own digital strikes. It looks like we will have to do more of those many Fridays to come.”

Sarrafoğlu will continue to highlight environmental flashpoints in Turkey such as mining, destruction of land and habitat, and the use of cyanide for gold digging. But activists are also looking ahead into the future that will be built following the shock of the pandemic. “Despite the devastation that coronavirus is wreaking, both in terms of human lives but also on the economy, there's a lot of opportunity in terms of the stimulus packages that many governments are talking about, coming out of the coronavirus pandemic and looking at how that's used,” says Glen Tyler-Davies, South African Team Leader with 350.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) environmental activists burning flares during a demonstration as wildfires raged in the Amazon rainforest

His team is working to promote a just transition to renewable energy following the crisis. Public finance bodies such as the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa will likely be putting money into responses to the outbreak, and activists will be fighting to ensure they contribute to a green future. There seems to be public support for this kind of thinking around the world. In polling released by Ipsos MORI this week, 65% of people globally agreed that it is important that climate change is prioritised in the economic recovery after coronavirus.

“In reality there are some very vested interests in our current economy who want to see [the economic recovery] go in a very specific way,” Tyler-Davies says. “Particularly in South Africa where we get almost 90 percent of our electricity from coal, they want to see the coal sector propped up, because the coal sector is now completely uneconomical. Those are the vested interests that we need to combat and we need to make sure that it is the people's voice that comes out first.”

Governments, of course, are not always easy to convince. The Trump administration has been criticised for giving public land to oil and gas companies during the crisis, and faced calls to change course from a coalition of environment, indigenous and community groups in New Mexico.

Such coalitions are a common facet of climate activism, and they are particularly important at the moment as the pandemic boosts the need for solidarity. In South Africa, for instance, many groups have banded together under the banner of C19 to monitor the enforcement of the lockdown to ensure it does not spill over into abuse of power by the army. “There's been a lot of work around coronavirus,” Tyler-Davies confirms. “For most organisations, the gold standard of activism is making sure work is intersectional. Coronavirus has obviously provided an issue that really has allowed that to happen. So you've seen all sorts of different activist groups coming together to work on coronavirus and work on it [in relation] to their specific issues.” These ties could be one legacy of the crisis.

Another could be a shift in the culture of decision-makers in government, and public perception of risk. Advice given to government ministers can be scientific, but there may be other factors which influence the interpretation of this empirical knowledge when presented as official advice. “[There are] so many climate parallels in early responses to Covid-19. Advisers not wanting to say difficult things. Over-cautious assumptions about what 'the public' would accept. Science advice is always shaped by cultural/social assumptions,” tweeted Rebecca Willis, a professor at Lancaster University as well as expert lead of the UK’s net zero citizens' assembly, an associate of Green Alliance and trustee of the New Economics Foundation. “You can see [this effect] exactly at the start of the Covid-19 crisis in January and February, and for the past 20 years on climate,” she tells Change Incorporated. 

In the context of Covid-19, if you do not take care of yourself, you become ill. If you don’t take care of the Earth, the Earth becomes ill

“The culture of decision-making in Westminster and Whitehall is one of cool, slightly detached rationalism. And then you also have the linked issue which is what experts and politicians believe the public will or won't accept.

“So that drove Covid-19 [response] because advisers and politicians are both on record as saying they didn't think that people would accept a lockdown.” Polling has in fact found the lockdown supported by 93 percent of the British public, and the government has been criticised for being slow to act, a charge it has denied

“On climate they say the same sort of thing,” Willis says. “They say they don't believe the public is willing to accept some of the measures that might be needed for climate action in terms of constraining demand for aviation or car use, for example, but actually, all the evidence shows that when you treat people with respect and provide them with the right information, they make the right decisions.” Research commissioned by Change Incorporated shows that 54 percent of people across the USA, Spain, Denmark, India and the UK believe we are living through a crucial decade to make changes so that we can stop the worst impacts of climate change. Recent polling by Opinium has found that 48 percent of the UK public agree that the government should respond "with the same urgency to climate change as it has with Covid-19". Just 28 percent say it shouldn't.

Climate activist Isao Sakai, one of the founding members of Fridays for Future Tokyo.

Willis works on Climate Assembly UK, which puts the approach of levelling with the public, rather than trying to second-guess its views, into action. “It talks through the dilemmas around climate action with a representative sample of the public, and asks them what they think the right way forward is,” Willis explains. “I've seen so many of those processes and they always come out with sensible answers. Fundamentally I just think, no one wants an unstable climate. No one wants the climate impacts that are going to hit us if we get 2.5-3 degrees of warming.”

In future, climate activism may find itself working more frequently alongside greater levels of public consultation on the issue, such as this citizens assembly. “I'm completely in favour of activism,” Willis says. “We've seen how important it is with the school strikes, for example. I think that official policymaking needs to be done in a different way, it needs to be informed by expertise of course, there's absolutely a role for expertise, but it also needs to be informed by deliberation with the public. It needs to be informed by public views and values in a much more systematic way than it is at the moment.”

For his part, Tyler-Davies is hopeful about what this moment could mean for climate activism. “I think a space will open up and is opening up for people to understand what is possible in the face of a crisis… The idea of taking these measures is to avoid the bigger crisis. For me as a climate activist that's really encouraging to see that we can do that.”

And Sarrafoğlu has another way of putting it. “In the context of Covid-19, if you do not take care of yourself, you become ill. I am sure our message is understood more than ever now. As in the climate crisis, if you don’t take care of the Earth, the Earth becomes ill. 

“It’s totally up to the people.”