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CWA # 366, 30 October 2020

Global Protest Movements
Climate Change Protests: Now moving out of the COVID-19 shadow

  Rashmi Ramesh

The pandemic has put a temporary halt on demonstrations, but there is an opportunity to come back more strongly.

COVID-19 cast a deafening silence over an evolving mass movement led by children, youth and students. However, this silence is temporary, as the activists found this as an opportunity to innovate and go to the virtual platform to reach out to the people and the leadership.

From Friday for Future to the COVID-19
Protests under the #FridaysforFuture began from Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate), an initiative by Greta Thunberg, was gaining success before the COVID-19.

Though not the first, her actions gained enough traction from the mainstream media and the NGOs that began promoting her cause. Under Fridays for Future, school strikes were being organized across Europe and the rest of the world. Protests were held in the developed and the developing world, though they were most visible in the former. Taglines such as "climate strike online" and "digital climate strikes" gained much-needed traction on social media.

The 50th Earth Day, celebrated on 22 April, was destined to be a big affair, given that the civil society had taken the initiative on the international platform, to demand climate action. However, considering the health crisis, several events commemorating the day were held virtually. Greta Thunberg reiterated that the climate crisis might not be as immediate and evident as COVID-19, but it is an irreversible process, and hence the need for stringent measures to manage it.

Virtual initiatives, though necessary and important, pose a question with regards to the sustainability of the movement. A social movement's success depends on demonstrations and gatherings along with the support from social media. This is the primary reason for the arguments that perceive the pandemic as a dampener with regards to movements. The main challenge is to adapt and ensure that the momentum continues. At the same time, the world reels under the effects of COVID-19 and ensure the sustainability of interests in the post-COVID period.

Overcoming the COVID challenge: Climate Change protests regroup and innovate
25 September 2020 should be seen as the revival of the global movement on climate change. The Global Climate Action Day witnessed protests in 3200 locations across the world. Being the first major event demanding climate action since the pandemic emerged, protests were organized with appropriate guidelines and precautions in place. While demanding plans and measures to tackle climate change effects, the protestors also wanted justice. They underlined an inclusive policy for climate action.

Activists in Uganda highlighted the media attention that wildfires in California managed to garner. However, at the same time, floods in East Africa that adversely affected around 3.6 million people, rarely made it to the mainstream media. Taking the developed and the developing world together in the process is essential. This particularly applies to the communities that do not contribute as much to accelerating climate change but are on the receiving end when disasters occur.

Climate activists now aimed at a revival that would make the world think long-term. They claim that the world that could not manage a pandemic, clearly cannot tackle the ill effects of climate change. There may be some truth in the claim, but one cannot deny that climate change provides a small window of time to prepare and face the bigger disaster in making that the scientists anticipate. The indications of climate change should make states and people rethink their actions. The window time, though not very predictable and uniform, ought to be used for strategizing climate action. It is therefore important for climate protests to focus on that time period to assess the preparedness.

Important protest movements are taking place even as there are multiple COVID-19 waves. The Black Lives Matter, protests in Thailand, Belarus and Nigeria, are taking centre stage. 

Climate protests, though had the limelight before the pandemic set in, did not attempt to come in full force like the other movements. Two reasons may be attributed to this: first, climate activists base their primary argument on science, hence cannot ignore the advice from scientists and public health officials. Therefore, they continued to voice their concerns over virtual platforms. Second, climate change may still not be a priority for those who are fighting against racism, monarchy, dictatorship, dignity, identity and the system. Climate protest has a responsibility to remove the tag of 'elitism' from itself and ensure that the awareness regarding the impact of climate change trickles down to different levels of society.

While activism is not the only way to voice opinions and demand change, it surely plays a role in making a demand count, whether the change is implemented or otherwise. An initiative by people/groups/organizations not only pressurize states to act but also helps awaken the larger part of the civil society to the cause. The pandemic has put a temporary halt on demonstrations, but there is an opportunity to come back more strongly. The world is reeling under economic crisis, and there is a natural tendency to ensure revival at a faster pace. The pace and the nature of recovery should be as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. Climate activism should focus on this aspect and the larger concept of climate justice.


About the author

Rashmi Ramesh is a PhD scholar with the Science Diplomacy Program at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.

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