Mar 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Climate activism in the time of coronavirus

Illustration of gloved fists
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Social distancing is forcing advocacy movements to adjust their tactics, creating new hurdles for climate activists who use mass protests and on-the-ground organizing as important tools.

Why it matters: Climate change has risen on the political radar in recent years. There are many reasons behind this, including the success of the Greta Thunberg-inspired protests and a burst of confrontational advocacy in the U.S. by the youth-led Sunrise Movement.

  • But even long before that, environmental groups have for decades used tactile organizing — think door-knocking, lobbying days and so forth — for issue-based campaigns and work in political races.

Driving the news: Those techniques are suddenly off the table. Thunberg recently said via Twitter that "we’ll have to find new ways" to advocate and announced plans for "digital strikes."

  • Other examples are emerging. Consider the movement to push banks to stop financing coal and petroleum projects. The umbrella group, Stop The Money Pipeline, canceled April 23 rallies and says it's "pivoting to a series of online and individual tactics."

Threat level: Digital advocacy has long been a piece of the advocates' toolbox, but smart organizers have also long understood that it's a complement to on-the-ground work — not a substitute.

The big picture: "Over the last decade, the climate movement has become a movement through mass action," veteran organizer Jamie Henn tells me, citing everything from marches to civil disobedience to house parties and potlucks.

  • "There's no doubt that something is lost when you take that activity online," adds Henn, who works with the recently formed Stop The Money Pipeline group and co-founded 350.org.

What's next: “This is a moment that demands creativity and thinking outside the box,” says Pete Maysmith of the League of Conservation Voters. "The climate crisis is not slowing down and our efforts to combat it are not going to slow down either."

  • “It is pulling out all the tools in our toolbox. That means phone calls, texting, and peer-to-peer and online organizing,” says Maysmith, the group's SVP of campaigns.
  • Maysmith lists efforts like online trainings, letter writing, and email campaigns. “We are just going to be engaging people in all the ways we can figure out."
  • Henn adds that Stop The Money Pipeline will provide tools to people to help them pressure financial institutions. "That means helping people move their money, cut up a bad credit card, tweet at CEOs, call corporate HQs, and connect with other activists in their area."

The bottom line: "The moment we're in requires a different sort of activism," Henn says.

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