As we approach the end of the year that saw the coronavirus pandemic act as a catalyst for a complete change in the way that we live, POW Volunteer Phoebe Landers, who is currently undertaking a Masters in Environment, Politics and Development at SOAS University of London, explores the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions on the climate justice movement.

Adapting climate action to the new normal

Greta Thunberg speaks at a Fridays for Future march in pre-lockdown January 2020
Image credit: @katemacleodphotography

The word ‘unprecedented’ has never been used with such regularity as in 2020. COVID-19 has demanded a total transformation of the way we carry out even the most banal of tasks, and this means that our approach to climate activism has had to adapt as well. Despite increasing momentum in the movement over the last few years, with increased media coverage, participation, and conversational airtime, climate activism in 2020 has nevertheless been severely hindered by the protective measures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Activism excels and has its greatest effect when it impacts people’s daily lives, but strict lockdown measures have meant that this is significantly more difficult than usual to execute. Fortunately, however, the climate movement has not responded to the pandemic with a pause, but has used it as an opportunity to regroup, to adapt, and to respond in new ways in order to ensure that the climate crisis is at the forefront of everyone’s minds as we begin to rebuild our systems.

Taking climate action online

As many of us made the transition to working, socialising or studying from home by holding online conferences, lectures and pub quizzes, climate activists were forced to make that same transition. This was easier for some aspects of the movement than others with, for example, Extinction Rebellion meetings being held via Zoom, and expert-led conferences being livestreamed. At Protect Our Winters UK, regular POW WOW online meetings took place. For the school strikes movement though, this was more complicated. How can you hope to capitalise off the impact of students sacrificing their school studies in solidarity with our planet when there is no classroom to walk out of?

Fortunately, Greta Thunberg’s Friday For Future movement gained momentum initially through social media, with her protest snowballing from her solo school strike in Sweden in August 2018 to more than one million strikers taking part in protests across the planet in March 2019.

It seems fitting, therefore, that social media usage be maximised during this period when physical activism is limited in order to continue to unite and motivate the global community. Thunberg encouraged her 12 million social media followers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to simply pick up their placards at home and use hashtags such as #ClimateStrikeOnline and #FridaysForFuture to join the digital strike, posting on the thirteenth of March that ‘In a crisis we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society’.

The Fridays for Future movement began with Thunberg’s solo strike in Sweden
Image credit: @gretathunberg Instagram

It seems fitting, therefore, that social media usage be maximised during this period when physical activism is limited in order to continue to unite and motivate the global community. Thunberg encouraged her 12 million social media followers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to simply pick up their placards at home and use hashtags such as #ClimateStrikeOnline and #FridaysForFuture to join the digital strike, posting on the thirteenth of March that ‘In a crisis we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society’.

This flexibility has been shown by many organisations; in Germany, for example, Fridays for Future saw the biggest digital strike ever on the 24th of April 2020 with over 230,000 participants. This included a global livestream featuring climate scientists and strikers on their YouTube channel. Fridays For Future has subsequently launched weekly ‘Talks for Future’ that comprise webinars and discussions with scientists, journalists, and activists in order to keep the conversation going. At POW UK, key actions that have taken place during lockdown have included lobbying MPs for a Just & Green Recovery Scotland, promoting Switch It Days, launching The POW Pledge and, together with the UK Climate Coalition, issuing The Time is Now Declaration.

Follow Protect Our Winters UK on social media to keep up to date with important initiatives such as our POW Pledge

To mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on the 22nd April 2020, a livestream event was held that featured activists, celebrities and musicians coming together to raise awareness and to ‘flood the digital landscape with action’. Similarly, London Climate Action Week introduced a digital substitute between the 1st – 3rd of July, which brought together climate leadership from within London to discuss climate policy as a result of COVID-19. The second installment took place in November 2020, with a series of events that aimed to build the momentum for the rescheduled COP 26 next year. The POW UK team have been using this time for organisation and mobilisation, using this time to regroup and come back with a strong plan to demand climate justice at COP26.

The good news, therefore, is that our ever-increasing digital literacy means that we can adapt climate activism to promote positive change remotely, and the power of online activism combined with physical demonstrations when possible should not be underestimated.

Adapting physical climate action

Safe public demonstrations still play a key role in promoting climate justice
Image credit: @GreenpeaceNL

Nevertheless, while modern technology does provide us with the ability to take activism increasingly online, and continue informing ourselves about the climate crisis, the importance of tangible action and physical public demonstrations are still invaluable. We need urgent action to halt the irreversible damage being done to our planet. Fortunately, despite COVID-19 making many of the usual routes of physical action impossible, we have seen many ideas for innovative ways of making these causes known without putting anyone at risk or flouting government guidelines.

As regulations eased after the first lockdown, we saw the fledgling efforts of activists to place the climate crisis back at the forefront of agendas, with socially distanced marches, individual demonstrations, flyposting and so on. Greenpeace activists in Amsterdam cycled onto runways in May to demand climate consciousness for bailout processes, demonstrating the possibility for smaller-scale, decentralised actions. Extinction Rebellion advocated flyposting as part of their ‘No Going Back’ campaign in April, which involved pasting posters over the doors of big businesses to make it clear that they cannot reopen for business as usual, but must instead reopen with a focus on sustainable futures.

‘Invest in people and a sustainable future’
Image credit: @ExtinctionRebellion on Twitter

On 18th May 2020, XR London laid down 2,000 children’s shoes in Trafalgar Square to call on the UK government to bear the climate in mind when rebuilding our economy in the wake of COVID-19, in order to protect the futures of young people and children. September saw XR putting pressure on the UK government with peaceful disruption, and a ‘coronavirus-safe’ Global Climate Strike was organised for September 25th. Perhaps naturally, despite the organiser’s best efforts, the online protests and activism did not come close to the levels of engagement with the street protests last year, but at least the strict COVID-19 regulations did not completely stop activists taking to the streets in a safe manner.

These examples demonstrate the many possibilities still inherent within physical activism in the time of coronavirus, and will hopefully continue to encourage further innovative ideas to retain and rebuild the pre-coronavirus momentum, thus once more engaging wider society and inspiring the country to keep the climate crisis at the forefront of the agenda as we continue our recovery from this global pandemic. We have a unique opportunity in the aftermath of what has become not only a health but an economic crisis; we need to take this chance to rebuild on a more sustainable foundation so that we do not continue to sacrifice the future of our planet.

An Extinction Rebellion protest in May 2020
Image credit: @ExtinctionRebellion on Twitter

What can you do?

Coronavirus will almost certainly have long-lasting impacts on the way we carry out daily tasks, but this does not mean that we have to sacrifice climate sensitivity today in order to accommodate the immediate crisis. Despite the difficulties of participating in physical action, our individual roles are more important than ever.

Follow @protectourwintersuk on social media to keep up to date with sustainable initiatives

Keep an eye on your local and nationwide activist groups to keep up to date with how you can use your voice and engage with others in lieu of physical action. Do not underestimate your own circles of influence: they may seem smaller, but with small actions, we can create bigger ripples within our own groups of friends, family, colleagues and social media followers – moreover, individuals are much more likely to listen to someone they love and respect with regard to climate issues. Finally, keep following POW UK’s social channels, where we’ll keep you up to date with further actions that you can be a part of – such as our recent Big Give Christmas Challenge – as we work towards Net Zero.

Ultimately, we can all utilise increased lockdown communication to safely continue the conversation about the climate crisis, and the more of us who take part in the conversation, the better chance we have of inspiring positive change.

Large-scale demonstrations are on hold for now, so we need to keep finding ways to fight safely for the future of our planet
Image credit: @katemacleodphotography
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