Earth Day Live: Climate strikes turn virtual

In a time before stay-at-home orders, crowds gathered for D.C.'s global climate strike in September 2019 (Image by Victoria Middleton).

Last year was a momentous time for the youth climate movement. Following several large-scale, coordinated strikes throughout the year, the three-day strike planned for April 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, was meant to outshine them all. Millions of people were expected to participate in climate strikes and events around the world. 

Youth-led organizations that have become well-known within the climate movement – such as Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement, Youth Climate Strike, and Future Coalition – banded together under a Climate Strike Coalition to unite and plan this convergence. Adult-led organizations formed a supporting coalition, signifying that this is a multigenerational movement. More than 360 additional movement partners located around the world signed on to support and take part in the collective action. 

Naina Agrawal-Hardin, a 17-year-old activist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of Sunrise and a national representative on the Climate Strike Coalition. She has been organizing strikes since one of the first youth-led climate strikes was held in March 2019, but the strikes in 2020 would prove to be unlike anything held before.

Naina Agrawal-Hardin speaking at a climate rally prior to the COVID-19 oubreak. (Image courtesy of Naina Agrawal-Hardin)

By early March plans and arrangements were well underway, but nobody could have predicted what would happen next. Within a span of weeks, plans to apply for protest permits and requests for rally speakers came to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 crisis.

In a press release responding to the COVID-19 crisis, the coalition acknowledged the responsibility of the climate justice movement to do what they have asked the public to do in regard to climate change for years: listen to the science. With public health experts and researchers explaining that the best way to curb this virus is by staying home, the coalition knew their original plans for mass gatherings would have to be adapted – but not abandoned. 

It would have been easy to cancel the whole event, but in a defining moment, the youth rose to meet the challenge head-on.

“We have 10 years to restructure our entire society in order to mitigate the effects of climate change,” Agrawal-Hardin said. “That fact means we need to be thinking about sustainability and climate solutions as we rebuild our society from this COVID-19 crisis. We can’t afford to let the climate crisis slip out of public consciousness.”

The climate movement would not be suppressed, not even by a pandemic. As the coalition’s website stated, “Even if we’re stuck at home, we can still change the world.” 

The coalition devised themes for each of the three days of events.

April 22, Earth Day, was originally meant to be a day of mass mobilization, but instead, it morphed into an opportunity to demonstrate unity throughout the community. The organizers chose to focus on healing and togetherness as a way to provide comfort and inspiration during the COVID-19 crisis. They took care to emphasize the need to center the voices of indigenous, people of color, and frontline communities.

On April 23, the Stop the Money Pipeline Coalition led a day of action dedicated to divestment and climate financing. From banks to insurance companies, many financial institutions are complicit in the funding, insuring, and investing in the climate crisis. In the strategy of youth-activists, blocking this steady flow of money into destructive fossil fuel infrastructure and activities is critical for addressing the climate emergency.

On April 24, organizers wrapped up Earth week with a focus on the need for political change and a call for nationwide youth voter registration. Elected officials were asked to support their demands, which include a People’s Bailout, a Green New Deal, and Land Back for Indigenous Peoples. 

The 72-hour live stream was packed with content to connect organizers across the world in a massive, virtual convergence. Informative panels included topics of art and youth activism, the experiences of disabled activists, indigenous leaders on the frontlines of fossil fuel resistance, intentionally making space for young people of color in the movement, being politically engaged, and climate therapy. Viewers could take a little break with the numerous musical performances from artists such as Nahko Bear and Tank and the Bangas as well as yoga, meditation, and cooking tips throughout the days. Local organizers were also invited to host their own virtual events in tandem with Earth Day Live, and these events were held across the country, from Alaska to Florida.

View of Earth Day Live program

Three successful days of convergence did come with challenges. Agrawal-Hardin reflected that it was hard to get people energized leading up to these events, especially given the current health crisis.

“People are losing loved ones or stuck at home in situations that don’t feel safe. It’s a really hard time to get people hopeful about any part of our future,” she said.

Organizers knew it was important to directly acknowledge the intersectionality between the climate crisis and the COVID-19 crisis.

“We wanted to advance public understanding that this is not just a crisis for the planet but also when it comes to justice and peoples lives,” Agrawal-Hardin said. “COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting black, Latinx, and indigenous communities. The climate crisis is disproportionately affecting these same groups of people.” 

The Center for Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report with data indicating that black Americans had higher rates of hospitalization despite a lower percentage of the community. The CDC attributes this disturbing pattern to various factors including a lack of access to health care. With a relatively small collection of data and a constantly evolving situation, the true extent of this pattern remains unknown, but individual reports from states support this conclusion. In Milwaukee County, black residents make up 52% of the current 168 COVID-19 deaths, but they represent only 26% of the county’s total population. Similar trends have popped up in Louisiana and Michigan, among other states. 

Staggering reports of these disparities have been reported in national media, including CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

“[COVID-19] is exposing the effects of the inequitable system in our country and world,” Agrawal-Hardin said. “We are seeing what activists have been saying for a long time. This country is set up to benefit a select percentage of the wealthy. Millions are losing not only their jobs but also their health care, and the government is handing out billions to corporations. Their priority is not to take care of people but profits.”

The design of this Earth Day’s climate strike may have been different, but the vision for the future remains the same. 

Agrawal-Hardin concluded, “What I hope people take away, and what I think people need to hear right now, is that it is still possible, and in fact necessary, to build a better future. A better future means no more water shutoffs in black and brown communities, no more violation of indigenous sovereignty with oil pipelines, and health care for everyone. All of that is critical, and if we come together and mobilize around it, it is possible.”

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