By Laura Watson
No one jumps on the barricades when they think the barricade might have a virus on it,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group.
Before this global pandemic, we were seeing weekly climate protests, led by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement; now with mass gatherings of any kind banned, what has happened to the momentum for change?
What was happening before the pandemic?
6 million people took part in the September 2019 global climate strikes. In February 2020, students occupied Saint Johns’ college, Oxford for 5 days to call on the college to divest from fossil fuels. Momentum behind protests calling for action on climate change was showing no sign of slowing. For instance, there had been plans for mass climate protests from the 22nd-24th April, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. But of course, these were cancelled, and moved online
What impact has the pandemic had?
The current global pandemic has put a stop to mass gatherings, with some governments taking steps to ban protest entirely. In Algeria, 2019 saw mass street protests against the former regime, resulting in a change in government. The protests continued into 2020, demanding a total restructuring of the Algerian political system. But now, under the pretext of stopping coronavirus, the new president has banned protest for more than a year. This pattern is true to a lesser extent across the world in countries in a state of lockdown, with mass gatherings banned and strict social distancing rules in place; indeed 111 countries currently have measures in place preventing assembly of any kind.
Despite these restrictions, young people are not giving up on climate protest. Fridays for the Future has called for digital strikes during the lockdown period. Online webinars organised by Fridays for the Future have allowed millions to attend online, even those who had not previously been able previously to protest in the streets. People have participated in this digital movement from gardens, balconies and bedrooms, through social media. Fridays for the Future Germany staged a large digital demonstration with 230,000 livestream viewers and 40,000 tweets for the planned Earth Day climate demonstration.
This shift shows the change in behaviour ushered in by the current crisis, as the climate movement adapts to the new circumstances. There are those who emphasise that digital activism is not as effective as street protest. Nevertheless, for the time being, physical protest is no longer an option, so this digital approach is the best alternative. Despite the potential downsides of online protest, it gives rise to an opportunity to rethink how people protest and engage in collective activism.
Where does this leave us?
The digital approach to activism suggests that young people at least will not forget what has happened; there is a potential for actions on an even larger scale once it is safe for all to do so, as the online movement has been able to reach new people who were previously unable or unwilling to participate in traditional street protests.
In terms of action on climate change, some positives may yet emerge at the end of the pandemic. For example, more than 60 British organisations (including Iceland Foods, The Body Shop, the RSPB, and the National Trust) have called for a green approach to economic recovery following the predicted recession. There have also been suggestions in the UK that restarting the economy should focus on low-carbon work programmes. Perhaps there is hope that recovery from the virus can enable a move towards solving climate change.
OCS Media Team
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