The coronavirus pandemic has changed how we live our lives. From how we work, to how we interact, to even how we greet each other, COVID-19 has dramatically altered human activity as people try to “flatten the curve” to reduce transmission of the highly contagious virus.
In the face of this global outbreak, those in the environmental movement and the youth climate strike movement are forced to shift and pivot.
With governments encouraging social distancing and discouraging groups larger than 10 people, physical mass demonstrations, as well as weekly climate striking, are on hold for the foreseeable future. But although people are no longer physically demonstrating, the movement has not stalled. Instead, it’s just gone digital.
As the movement marks 50 years on April 22, Earth Day is moving to a digital mobilization, as Earth Day Network announced this week. Last week, 17-year-old Swedish climate activist and founder of climate organization Fridays for Future Greta Thunberg weighed in on Twitter, encouraging people to strike online.
“[K]eep your numbers low and your spirits high and let’s take one week at a time,” wrote Thunberg. “You can join the #DigitalStrike for upcoming Fridays – post a photo of you striking with a sign and use the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline.”
With that tweet, the youth climate movement seemed to open another avenue for action, one that seizes the power of digital platforms to move strikes online. And while digital climate striking may lack the powerful visual of hundreds of thousands of people crammed on city streets to demand action, digital climate striking is also new territory. And it’s really never been done at the mass scale we’re about to see.
To grasp what digital striking really looks like, we checked in with 16-year-old George Zhang and 16-year-old Iris Zhan, founders of the Fridays for Future digital strike movement, which has been around for nearly a year.
“Greta giving a shout out to digital strike really legitimizes our movement,” Zhan, who lives in suburban Maryland, told me. “A lot of people are digital striking now, and it’s great to see that.”
Every week, Zhang and Zhan compile submissions from around the country, posting them on their accounts. Submissions typically include people taking a photo of themselves holding a climate striking sign and sending it to the @FFF_Digital account, but can also include gifs and face or hand paint.
“You don’t have to necessarily be out on the street to support climate movement and call for climate action,” says Zhang, who lives outside Los Angeles. “Coronavirus, as awful as it is, has really given new insights on how the climate movement could potentially move forward.”
We first spoke to both Zhang and Zhan last November for a piece about how digital striking offers an alternative to young people who can’t skip school. Since Thunberg’s announcement and the global coronavirus outbreak, that exception has become the rule for many, and now more people are digital striking than ever before.
“It was absolutely insane,” says Zhang, noting Thunberg’s tweet. “Our page started flooding with follows, people sharing. We got discovered by over 10,000 people in the last two days alone, which has been absolutely mind-blowing.”
Shortly after our phone call, Zhang texted with more good news: Fridays for Future Digital saw over 400 submissions in the week, five times their weekly average.
This digital explosion is reflective of the larger climate strike community. With each day that passes, and as cases of coronavirus in the U.S. grow rather than shrink, it’s clear that more organizations are committing to online measures to combat the climate crisis.
The U.S. Youth Climate Strike Coalition recently canceled physical mass demonstrations, instead encouraging strikers to “think critically and creatively about how to engage their communities in disrupting business as usual through different and new tactics.” United Kingdom-based climate organization Extinction Rebellion is postponing events for now, citing the need to prioritize public health and protect vulnerable communities.
But these organizations are also highlighting the need to continue the fight against government inaction on climate change, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many are drawing direct comparisons between government and societal response to the coronavirus and climate crises.
“The COVID-19 world response has proven that rapid change and disruption of business as usual is possible!” wrote Jamie Margolin, founder of climate organization Zero Hour, in an op-ed published yesterday.
Zhan also sees the need to emphasize the public’s response to science, citing that we’ve known the science behind climate change — and its devastating impacts — for years, yet have refused to act. The urgency she sees with the pandemic is what we need in climate action. Zhang agrees.
“When politicians say that it’s too much work, too much effort to put in [to address climate change], you have to consider they’re [taking urgent action to address] coronavirus right now… they could have that exact same response with climate change,” Zhang says.
The Fridays for Future digital team is currently working on a toolkit and coordinating with more countries overseas, all to unite several factions of the online striking community.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced the environmental movement to shift strategies, but that doesn’t mean it has lost focus. Digital striking is a way for activists to fight for the planet’s health, even amid a pandemic.
“The coronavirus is a super important thing for us to address, and I’m so glad that Greta is encouraging activists to remain home and stay safe, but also the message of climate action is something that has to be out there,” says Zhang.
To participate in the largest online mobilization in history, join Digital Earth Day activities as we demand bold action on April 22. Follow @earthdaynetwork on social media and visit earthday.org for the latest updates.