As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, climate activism has fallen victim to “the new normal,” with social distancing standards preventing common forms of activism. Recovering from the pandemic has taken priority over climate action, despite a catastrophic past year of environmental challenges. Fridays for Future, a youth-based climate activism movement, is no stranger to the hardships of COVID-19. Based on collective action, the organization has been forced to adapt and broaden its coalition.
Fridays for Future is a movement that began in August 2018, after youth activists sat in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks to protest against the lack of international action on the climate crisis. The movement earned its initial buzz after posts on Instagram and Twitter went viral. Led by Greta Thunberg, and with most on-the-ground leaders consisting of youth activists, Fridays for Future’s mission is to challenge world leaders to take immediate action against climate change, as well as galvanize the world’s youth to frame the climate crisis as the unavoidable issue of our generation. Now spanning 7500 cities and reaching over 14 million people, it has quickly become one of the most successful and expansive movements in the history of climate activism.
Previous to the pandemic, the tactics of Fridays for Future came in the form of school strikes on Fridays to raise awareness and show solidarity across state and country borders that more must be done to combat worsening climate conditions. Followed by mass demonstrations, city-wide protests, and digital activism on social media, the social movement’s structure focused on group organization in public spaces.
During the pandemic, that’s near impossible. Pauline Brünger, one of the leaders of the Fridays for Future movement, described the challenges that face the movement as a result of the pandemic: “There are more misunderstandings as a result of communicating online. Like with any political protest, my motivation comes from my inner conviction. But above all, it comes from the fear of what will happen if we don’t do anything about climate change… The coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis are quite similar. If you respond too late, it will be impossible to stop their impacts.” Creating urgency is one of the central components of maintaining relevancy and expansion of the movement. Framing the issue as an existential threat that if untreated will lead to humanitarian catastrophe puts pressure on the individual, politicians, and the global socioeconomic infrastructure to push for change.
Keeping the movement visible is imperative to maintaining a presence in civil society, thus COVID-19 does pose advantages in the form of digital activism. It allows for increased participation—anyone from anywhere in the world can donate, repost, educate, and engage in online forums, whereas previously the participation was not as direct. Increased participation bolsters an individual approach to climate activism—the social movement is so comprehensive and large that individual stories of small community efforts can be lost in the thousands of communal, regional, transnational, and international issues. Climate change is incredibly vast and transcends all continents, languages, and culture. Digital activism provides a platform for voices and issues that would otherwise never be heard. Some local examples include Boston Climate Action Network and Chelsea Creek Action Group Partnership, both of which have been able to increase participation and community engagement as a result of expanded digital activism.
Broadening the coalition expands the movement’s reach to more than the intended target audience, which increases the overall participation in the movement. This draws on social movement theory, ultimately stating that the more people who support a movement, the more likely the success of the movement. In the United States, the summer of 2020 saw resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of police brutality and increased awareness of systemic racism. Since climate change disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and Latino people, the climate crisis and racial injustice are intrinsically linked. Broadening the coalition to activists combatting systemic racism has increased participation and the universality of both issues, making for a more profound and systemic change for both social movements. Proliferating to the national stage, groups such as Energy Justice Network and Energy Action Coalition are bridging the gap between racial and climate inequality.
The introduction of various COVID-19 vaccination distributors breeds optimism for a return to normalcy. However, redefining the ‘new normal’ will be at the top of the agenda for Fridays For Future and other climate change organizations. With Joe Biden as president of the United States, there is hope that international governmental actors will revise their previous sentiments towards climate change and pin it as the most prevalent and time sensitive global issue. Fridays For Future is focused on mobilization of the youth, and with a broadened coalition of climate justice activism and the inclusion of minority leaders, the movement has only gained strength and momentum heading into the reemergence of civil society.
- Climate Strikers Get Inventive During the COVID-19 Crisis. “Environment”. Deutsche Welle. 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/climate-strikers-get-inventive-during-the-covid-19-crisis-fridays-for-future/a-53229262
- How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Fridays For Future Climate Movement. Global Landscapes Forum. July 2020. https://www.globallandscapesforum.org/video/how-covid-19-has-impacted-the-fridays-for-future-climate-movement/
- Haynes, Suyin. ‘We Now Need to Do the Impossible.’ How Greta Thunberg Is Fighting for a Greener Post-Pandemic World. December 2020. Time. https://time.com/5918448/greta-thunberg-coronavirus-climate-change/
- Sato, Mayumi. 3 Youth Climate Activists on how COVID-19 Has Shaped Their Work. December 2020 Landscape News. https://news.globallandscapesforum.org/48738/3-youth-climate-activists-on-how-covid-19-has-shaped-their-work/
- Tabanera, Bjorn. How Climate Activism Has Suffered From COVID-19. October 2020. Earth.org. https://earth.org/climate-activism-suffered-from-covid-19/