On Tuesday I woke up to an email in my inbox: “We’re thrilled to hear you’ve signed up for Sunrise School’s Green New Deal & Coronavirus crash course!”
While stress-scrolling through the internet the day before, looking for signs of hope amid the pandemic news, I’d registered for Sunrise Movement’s webinar series about the overlap between climate organizing and the novel coronavirus. The youth-led group is known for organizing climate actions in the U.S. in solidarity with Greta Thunberg’s international strikes; but when the pandemic struck, it pivoted to address the burgeoning global health crisis.
“Right now, health is the top priority for all people, with no exceptions,” says Sunrise spokesperson Naina Agrawal-Hardin. Climate strikes and events have moved online, due to the risk of gathering in large crowds. In late February, the group’s organizers began to realize how disruptive the virus could be and shifted to a broader vision of public health: both the current viral disaster and the long-term threat of climate change.
In the midst of a pandemic with an immediate and visible toll on human life and the economy, other ongoing crises have fallen lower on the public’s radar. But environmentalists are finding ways to keep climate change relevant by advocating loudly for an agenda that protects people as well as the planet. The Sunrise School webinar that I joined is just one small example of ongoing activism. Global climate strikes and rallies are now being held online. Last week, as Congress debated a historic economic-stimulus package, Sunrise, along with 500 other organizations, like Greenpeace and the Indigenous Environmental Network, put forth the People’s Bailout, an economic plan for addressing the fallout from COVID-19. Another coalition of prominent environmental leaders signed a Green Stimulus proposal, designed to tackle climate change and economic disruptions from the novel coronavirus in tandem. Now that a $2 trillion rescue bill has become law, activists are fighting to ensure sustainability is included in additional aid packages that the country is likely to require as the economy adjusts to the ongoing pandemic.
“We didn’t want to come out last week and be like, ‘Climate is an issue!’ when people are terrified about their jobs and parents,” says Samantha Killgore, a spokesperson for the environmental-advocacy group Protect Our Winters. Before the pandemic took hold, POW was centering advocacy on the 2020 election. It has since dialed back campaign messaging and canceled in-person events but is still fighting hard for the planet. “Our community overwhelmingly said, ‘We want you to keep doing it. We need the goal, we need something to be focused on,’” Killgore adds.
A consensus seems to be emerging from environmental groups that climate change and coronavirus are both massive global problems that may require similar strategies to solve. Each requires a combination of individual action and sweeping, potentially unpopular political policies. Both bleed across political and social boundaries but affect the most vulnerable populations (even if the vulnerable are usually not the ones spewing carbon into the atmosphere or partying close together in Miami Beach). Both will progress too far to effectively contain if we wait until we can see the impact of the crisis, but it’s hard to convince people to change if they can’t see the results. Both are growing exponentially, overwhelming the systems we rely on to sustain our daily lives. In the case of each crisis, we knew in advance that things could become apocalyptically bad.
Coronavirus has made it sharply clear that ignoring science can be deadly, and that placing responsibility for widespread crises on individual choice instead of government negligence can stall any realistic solutions. Those are lessons that environmental groups have tried to hammer home for years. For activists and journalists in the climate-change space, the pandemic exposes or exacerbates existing problems. “Coronavirus is raising questions about everything from global carbon emissions to ecosystem restoration to corporate bailouts to how we treat each other” is how climate journalist Emily Atkin put it in a recent issue of her newsletter, Heated. The question is how to move forward.
As Elizabeth Sawin, codirector of the think tank Climate Interactive, told Yale360, tackling our biggest problems together may be more effective than trying to take them on one by one. There is not yet a clear map for dealing with either crisis, but it’s obvious that sustaining our energy and activism for the long haul will require a multipronged approach, especially now that we’re having to reconfigure to socially distant life The U.S. Youth Climate Strike Coalition canceled in-person Earth Day protests but is encouraging advocates to rally online that day to show solidarity and keep pressure on politicians. When I logged on to my Sunrise webinar last week, the first two topics of our lessons were “militant optimism” and “how to answer tough questions,” evidence that any kind of long-term activism takes social resilience, and grassroots messaging, along with political action.
But right now, government leadership is paramount. To push policy in an ecologically and environmentally positive direction, as the federal government works through a series of stimulus packages, activists have outlined green stimulus plans that align our health care systems and the economy with environmental goals. Those plans combine the government’s main priorities—namely, saving lives and keeping the economy from collapsing—with goals that climate and social-justice advocates are gunning for. The Green Stimulus, signed by leaders like Bill McKibben and Gina McCarthy, proposes clean-energy investments, tax credits for sustainable businesses, and shoring up housing, public-land, and resource access. It’s not the only policy suggestion around; in addition to the People’s Bailout, the Natural Resources Defense Council sent recommendations to Congress on March 20.
“We’re already seeing bailouts that prioritize fossil-fuel CEOs when we need to be bailing out small businesses and [communities],” says Sunrise Movement’s Agrawal-Hardin. “We have to be prioritizing people over profit or polluters.” She says the bailouts in the $2 trillion rescue bill, which the president signed into law on Friday, are skewed toward large corporations and faltering, carbon-intensive industries—$25 billion for the airline industry, for example, without any emission-reduction caveats. Neither party was particularly happy with the parts of the bill that dealt with the environment: the final version did not include $3 billion for the strategic petroleum reserve the president had asked for, for instance, but it also didn’t include tax credits for renewables, which Democratic lawmakers wanted. But environmental groups see this stimulus package as a starting point—and they plan to advocate for increased short-term relief for struggling individuals, as well as long-term investment in systems like healthy agriculture, clean public transit, and carbon-neutral energy infrastructure in future bills.
And for the most part, many Americans want to see equitable climate-change goals become policy. The group Data for Progress recently reported that voters support a Green New Deal, even in the midst of the outbreak. Lots of things that outdoorspeople love, including national parks, historic trails, and public beaches, were first protected by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Maybe the pandemic we’re living through is another historic opportunity for Americans to go back to work in a way that prioritizes the public good—and, by extension, the outdoors.
There will be more government stimulus in the coming months. But environmentalists have to be loud and advocate for what we value forcefully—because big businesses, like airlines and the oil industry, haven’t been shy about asking for money. As Rhode Island’s Democratic junior senator Sheldon Whitehouse recently said to the writer and activist Bill McKibben: “I fear that enviros don’t know how to ask, because, so far in this scrum, we haven’t heard much from them.”
That’s why I don’t think it’s tone-deaf, insensitive, or irrational to keep talking about climate change as we continue to confront the novel coronavirus. As a society, we need to learn to invest in long-term solutions before the consequences of our lack of foresight are right on our doorstep. As we do, we may find ourselves fighting against collective fear, instability, and the desire to revert back to a pre-pandemic status quo. But by not silencing ourselves in this moment, we might just bring about lasting, positive change.
“One of the things we always run up against is the belief that things can’t change that quickly,” says Protect Our Winters’ Killgore. “In the past, policy makers have said, ‘If we need to move away from the fossil-fuel economy in ten years, that’s not possible.’ But look at what we’ve done in the last three weeks.”