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Climate activism in the age of COVID-19

Americans’ acceptance of global warming is at a record high and environmental activists say those views have a lot to do with the mass climate protests that have been gaining momentum in recent years. But in the midst of the pandemic, climate activists are now trying to keep the public’s focus on both crises and have pivoted online to organize and continue their advocacy. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While the environmental effects of COVID-19 are still being studied, research shows that there is a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities and people of color.

    Now, activists behind the in-person climate protests that were gaining momentum in the last few years are pivoting to keep the public's focus on both crises.

    They're finding online ways to organize and continue their advocacy. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Last year, high school youth and New York-based indigenous climate activist Xiye Bastida led hundreds of students in mass strikes as part of Fridays for Future, a walkout climate protest movement started by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

  • Xiye Bastida:

    When you disrupt the system, that is when people pay attention to you. So for the first global climate strike on March 15th, I organized my school to strike and I got 600 kids to walk out. And on the streets is where I met my fellow organizers from around New York City. And ever since we got together, started organizing and got three hundred thousand people to strike on September 20th.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The youth protest movement brought more than 10 million to the streets in September. Bastida and climate activists around the world were gearing up to do more in-person actions for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day at the end of April. But then, the coronavirus pandemic began, and stay-at-home orders were issued.

  • Xiye Bastida:

    It like, really disrupted our upward trend of having impact in different places. But it united us in a different way, because climate activism is about community. So we shifted all of our organizing that was going to happen on the streets to online activism.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The focus on online environmental activism has only grown. For Earth Day on April 22nd, climate justice organizations like 350.org helped organize a 72-hour livestream event, which had over 4.8 million views from around the world.

    Tamara Toles O'Laughlin How do you advocate, lobby and create critical moments of pressure when you can't get into someone's face?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Tamara Toles O'Laughlin is the North America Director for 350.org. The group created online toolkits for different ways of organizing around the climate, such as virtual banner projects, online training and outreach tutorials.

    Tamara Toles O'Laughlin How do you get people who aren't in the same place to connect about big ideas and create space for conversations? Some of that's just plain old education about what the facts are. Resources and toolkits. Templates for how to communicate with your representatives. So figuring out what it is people need where they are is just an extension of what we have been doing as an international global organization that's been working on climate for over a decade.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    On May 14th, the organization gathered more than 600 people for an online discussion that included the relationship between climate change and COVID-19. Other groups are also finding new ways of taking direct social action.

    Keya Chatterjee We have pivoted to organizing in a way that is totally consistent with keeping those distancing requirements in place.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Keya Chatterjee is the Executive Director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, a coalition of hundreds of organizations active on climate change.

    Keya Chatterjee We just launched something called "Arm-in-Arm",where any three people, anywhere they are in the country, can take leadership and start doing what we are calling disruptive humanitarianism. Whether that means, you know, planting orchards in the way of pipelines or closing off streets so kids can go outside for the first time in a month, you don't actually need to gather a lot of people to disrupt systems.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The network also started an online campaign called the People's Bailout. It urges citizens to call their elected representatives to demand they address the social inequities of climate change, which activists say now risk being intensified by the federal government's response to COVID-19.

  • Keya Chatterjee:

    If you look at who has been most badly affected by COVID- 19, it is indigenous, black, Latin X communities are the very same communities hit worse by the climate crisis. Even geographically, the overlap. If you look at, you know, Louisiana, you know, parts of New York, Detroit. These are places that have been really badly hit by environmental injustices and climate injustices.

  •  Ivette Feliciano:

    Youth climate activist Xiye Bastida says that, if nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the threat of climate change to marginal communities clear.

    Xiye Bastida I was born and raised in Mexico and when I was 13 years old, my town flooded heavily. And not only that, but the waste that we had from a lot of the neighboring factories spilled over on the streets. So it was pollution and the effects of the climate crisis combined into something that completely made my town unstable economically. So ever since that was like my wakeup call.

    Tamara Toles O'Laughlin What COVID has done is rip the Band-Aid off and let people know that if you don't have access and you don't have resources, then you don't have a response to a crisis that will only continue to be compounded as climate makes pandemics more likely.

    So, for example, in this moment, we were planning before now to focus on flood and a fire season. For people that are stable around what they can in COVID, they will be forced to consider whether they can continue to shelter-in-place in places where there are floods, where there are fires, where it's just too hot or electricity may go up because of brownouts.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    A new study this week by a group of international scientists found that global carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 17% in April during the coronavirus lockdown. Yet Bastida says it shouldn't take a health crisis to heal the planet.

  • Xiye Bastida:

    Because it is actually harming a lot of communities. The coronavirus pandemic is only stopping mass production of things, and we can achieve low carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy. We have to keep fighting for climate justice.

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