More than 7,500 people took to the streets of Denver on a sunny Friday in September 2019, marching to demand more aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and joining demonstrators in thousands of cities around the world in the largest day of climate-change protests in history. In barely a year, the Youth Climate Strike movement had grown from a series of small weekly protests led by teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg to a global wave of events attended by more than six million people — and no sooner had the banners come down in September than activists were already planning their next big strike for the week of April 22, the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. Then the world turned upside down.
“We had been planning these three massive days of national mobilizations — these big, in-person, direct-action kind of events,” says Julia Williams, an organizer with climate-advocacy group 350 Colorado. “We’ve had to pivot a lot of things in a really short period of time.”
We’re only beginning to add up the costs of the coronavirus pandemic and the global lockdown that governments have ordered to contain it. But the disruptions may have struck a particularly cruel blow against the environmental movement, which had entered 2020 riding a wave of positive momentum and hoped to leave its mark on a pivotal election year — and now, like the rest of the world, is scrambling to adapt to our strange new normal.
“It’s totally disorienting,” says Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians. “Every day it’s something new and weird that pops up. It’s hard to stay focused on the work sometimes. I think a lot of people are grappling with that: We’re in a crisis, what are we doing?”
Unlike other organizations whose work has been upended by the spread of COVID-19, advocates for more aggressive climate action can rightfully say that the problem they’re trying to solve is no less of a threat than a deadly pandemic — indeed, it may be more so. Even as the outbreak has upended life around the world, atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels have continued to rise, the climate has continued to heat up, and scientists have continued to warn about the catastrophic consequences we’ll face if we fail to reverse these trends within the next few years.
It’s a grim reality, one that wasn’t easy to communicate even before millions of people were struggling to cope with the grief, despair and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. Climate change is no less of a crisis than it was three months ago, but try telling that to someone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 or has been put out of work by social-distancing orders.
“As a movement, we’ve definitely had to re-evaluate,” Williams says. “What are the most important, critical things to be focusing on right now? What kind of time and emotional capacity do people have to engage?”
But the pandemic has also offered fleeting glimpses of the cleaner, more sustainable future that climate activists want to build — as anyone in Denver who looks toward the Rocky Mountains, vivid and bright in suddenly smog-free air, can attest. It’s given some of us time and space to reflect on the world we want to live in, and forced us to find new ways of seeking out a sense of community and purpose.
“There are people dealing with very real strains and stresses right now,” Nichols says. “At the same time, we know that there are people who are fortunate enough to be at home, cooped up, maybe able to work remotely, and they’re looking for things to do. And we want to make sure we’re there to give them things to do.”
Like everyone else, activists are turning to video chats, webinars, social media and other online tools to make up for the lack of in-person communication. The new generation of young people who are leading the climate-strike movement are no strangers to digital organizing — but it can be hard to find a virtual substitute for the visceral feeling of marching in the streets with throngs of your fellow protesters.
“Transitioning the energy you feel in an in-person event into this online thing — it’s a totally different ball game,” Williams says. “I think that’s what has been the most difficult for us. How do we build momentum and energy and excitement, and a feeling of connection and engagement, when somebody’s sitting in front of their computer at home?”
The 350 Colorado group has seen some encouraging results so far, like the turnout for an online rally to protest a fracking site near Greeley’s Bella Romero Academy last month, after an in-person event had to be canceled because of the outbreak. But now the movement’s new digital organizers face their biggest challenge yet as they try to stage a virtual event that feels momentous enough to mark an occasion like the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day.
In Denver, activists with a wide range of groups will take part in Earth Day Live, a three-day nationwide livestream organized by the US Climate Strike Coalition, beginning on April 22. Local organizers will put on their own one-hour live streams at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day, joining a national program that will feature dozens of advocates and artists from around the country, from Al Gore and Stacey Abrams to Talib Kweli and Jason Mraz.
“We definitely will all be missing each other in person,” Williams says. “Even though you can try and create something really great [online], you can’t re-create the feeling of striking with 8,000 people at the Capitol.”
“Think we should start?”
“You’re all muted, so if anybody’s speaking, you’ll have to un-mute yourself first.”
“Can you hear me?”
“Is Auden back? How many do we have?”
“I want to remind folks yet again to please not abuse the chat box.”
“Can you hear me?”
“Susan, if you are listening by phone, if you press star-nine now, we’ll be able to un-mute you…”
“We can hear you, Kelly. Can you hear us?”
Welcome to democracy in the age of coronavirus — the monthly meeting of Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission, a key rulemaking body appointed by the governor and tasked with regulating greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution. Like many other bodies, it’s conducting its business virtually in order to comply with social-distancing requirements, hearing testimony from agency staff and members of the public through the online video-chatting app Zoom.
For the most part, the AQCC’s April 16 hearing went smoothly, allowing several hours of public comment along with a briefing from state officials on Colorado’s efforts to develop a “roadmap” for meeting its new carbon-emissions targets. Public testimony, however, was dominated by comments from rural county commissioners and other officials who spoke in support of the state’s oil and gas industry, urging the AQCC to put its regulatory process on hold during the pandemic.
“If you truly value meaningful input from the local governments that are directly affected by your rulemaking processes, you will delay the hearings until the virus outbreak has passed in Colorado and local governments can fully engage with you,” Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck told the AQCC through his webcam.
“Attempting to rush rulemakings while involved with COVID-19…is not prudent or responsible.”
The obvious irony — that these representatives of Colorado’s far-flung rural counties were able to weigh in precisely because the hearing was being held virtually — seemed lost on the speakers. But the pushback put a spotlight on a major point of contention between environmental groups and industry allies during the outbreak: What should continue, and what should be put on hold? Activists are worried about a double standard developing.
“These calls for these commissions to pause rulemakings is coming as these agencies are continuing to crank out new permits — new oil and gas permits, new air [pollution] permits,” Nichols says. “We can’t have it be a one-way street. If we’re going to put a pause on things, we need to put a pause on everything.”
For now, the AQCC is pressing ahead with its regulatory work, with a major hearing on new greenhouse gas reporting requirements scheduled for May and a long list of other air-quality regulations expected to be enacted throughout the year. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, too, will continue its implementation of new health and safety rules after a brief pause this month.
With state environmental policy-making likely to be conducted online for the foreseeable future, activists are apprehensive about how the nature of virtual meetings might affect the process.
“There’s no substitution for face-to-face engagement — reading body language, reading faces, responding to the tone of the occasion,” Nichols says. “A lot of this online engagement, it’s pretty dry. It’s not really interactive, and it’s pretty regimented.”
Nichols recalls an AQCC hearing on new emissions rules last year, when commissioners had a lengthy back-and-forth that ultimately produced a stronger policy than had been originally proposed. “The value of the in-person meeting — I think it creates more space for creative thinking and more interaction,” he says. “I don’t know whether being online will be conducive to that kind of deliberation.”
Some of Colorado’s more colorful environmental activists, meanwhile, might find virtual rulemaking sessions disadvantageous for other reasons. The AQCC’s last in-person meeting, held in March, featured a silent demonstration from Extinction Rebellion activists, who loomed in the back of the hearing room in costumes that spelled out a warning about the urgent need for effective climate policy: “Out of Time.” That’s not an easy thing to replicate in a video chat.
“How do we show up and make a scene now?” Nichols wonders.
Most activists who have spent years putting pressure on governments to act more aggressively on climate change have grown accustomed to feelings of frustration and futility. As scientists’ warnings have grown increasingly dire, political dysfunction and gridlock have only deepened, and progress on curbing emissions has come in small, uneven increments. For a decade or more, American environmental policy has felt frozen in place.
For better or worse, those days are over. Suddenly, huge changes are happening faster than any of us can manage to keep up with. With transportation networks grinding to a halt around the world, the price of oil has fallen below zero for the first time ever, plunging the energy industry into financial chaos. Tens of millions of Americans have been put out of work, and even Republican budget hawks are backing trillion-dollar rescue packages to keep people and businesses afloat. From Denver to Dubai, people are looking up at blue skies undimmed by the gray petrochemical haze we’ve all grown used to and wondering why it can’t look like that all the time.
“It’s really illuminated that we do have this collective power,” Williams says. “And we have the opportunity, as we recover from this crisis, to use that shared fire, that shared passion, to advocate for a future that’s built out of the lessons that we’re learning.”
Before that can happen, though, activists fear that they’ll need to thwart attempts by industry groups and their allies in the federal government to exploit the pandemic for their own gain. President Donald Trump’s administration has ignored calls to put its deregulatory agenda on hold, forging ahead with proposals to roll back clean-car standards, weaken environmental-review processes and drastically limit scientific input in agency decision-making.
The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, announced last month that it would suspend enforcement of clean-air regulations until further notice, and the Food and Drug Administration has similarly suspended routine inspections of farms and processing facilities. At the federal level, the pattern is clear: Any action that might strengthen environmental protections is being put on hold, while everything that might eviscerate them is being fast-tracked.
“It’s calculated — they’re trying to take advantage of this crisis and the fact that people are distracted,” Nichols says. “I don’t know if I can put it into words, how morally reprehensible it is.”
Activists feel the weight of the moment as they prepare to come together, virtually, for the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, described by one of its founders, Denis Hayes, as the “largest secular holiday in the world.” The event’s creation in 1970 marked a turning point in the rise of the modern environmental movement, uniting conservationists, scientists, anti-nuclear and peace activists under a new banner and helping lead to the establishment of the EPA later that year. Hayes, a young activist from Wisconsin who helped organize the inaugural Earth Day, was later tapped by President Jimmy Carter to lead the Solar Energy Research Institute, now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Golden-based research facility that has helped shape much of the past few decades of clean-energy technology and policy.
In Colorado and beyond, Earth Day’s 2020 edition will surely go down in history as the strangest yet, with perhaps a lot fewer than the often-cited figure of one billion participants actually partaking in the festivities this year. Everyone has a lot more than just the environment on their minds right now.
But in a way, that’s the point. Not long ago, climate activists talked about the need for a “just transition” from fossil fuels to clean energy, a holistic approach that went beyond simply cutting emissions and prioritized strong protections for workers, people of color and other vulnerable communities. Their language has changed slightly; what the world needs, now that coronavirus has changed it forever, is a “just recovery.”
“This crisis has magnified so many of the social inequities across the world and brought them to the forefront, in terms of poverty, not having a job, equal access to health care, air quality,” says Williams. “We can see so much more clearly now how all these things are connected.”
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