The COVID-19 pandemic has irrefutably transformed youth climate activism.
On April 3, 2020, a day of national climate action for Canadians, the streets were empty. Where there should have been young people chanting, holding signs and rallying, there was not. So where have youth climate activists gone?
The answer is online. While social distancing measures are preventing youth climate activists from rallying onsite, Generation-Z also known as “Gen-Tech” has used the resources and opportunities provided by the technological world they’ve grown up in, to build effective, online climate justice movements.
Many youth environmental groups have started organizing online workshops, webinars and trainings for their virtual communities. Online awareness campaigns about environmental issues and climate change are also becoming increasingly popular among environmental organizations.
One of the most notable of these online movements to date, is the ‘Digital strike for climate.’ Every Friday, youth climate activists from around the world post pictures holding handmade climate strike signs. The message of their movement is that climate change needs to remain in the spotlight, not just despite, but especially because of COVID-19.
Due to COVID-19, environmental laws in many countries have been waived to allow for the continued operation of industry without compliance with normal standards that were created to protect ecology and keep pollution and carbon emissions in check.
COVID-19 is not only contributing to environmental degradation now. Environmentally degrading practices that are accelerating climate change may have also contributed to the circumstances that allowed for the emergence of COVID-19. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people. Current development practices used to expand cities and agricultural land by destroying natural habitat are creating the circumstances for zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 to jump species barriers and take hold in new hosts.
Not only this but through the deforestation needed to create these spaces for development, significant amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere. This release of carbon is furthering the greenhouse effect that is causing a global rise in temperature.
We must continue to keep climate related issues in the spotlight. In the long term, climate change will result in more death, displacement and economic loss than COVID-19 will cause. This is excluding the other negative impacts of climate change, like loss of food security, environmental degradation resulting in ecosystem loss, and altered weather patterns.
COVID-19 is deadly in a way that it is frightening on an instinctive, personal level. People react strongly to mortal threats, and for too many people, climate change is not that. It is a common theme in contemporary society that we act in the now, for the now, for our individual benefit. The visceral and immediate feelings that COVID-19 can trigger in the general public are not at all different than the ones that activists feel about climate change.
Despite this, our species directly created the circumstances that has allowed for the manifestation of climate change and the globalized emergence of COVID-19. With the opportunities for reevaluation caused by COVID-19, I think it is time to rethink current urbanization and development practices, and make serious changes. COVID-19 is not a coincidence, but a direct byproduct of our unsustainable actions. In spite of this, the time for climate action, as it has been for decades, remains now.
(Katia Bannister is a Thetis Island resident, Queen Margaret’s School student and prominent member of the Cowichan Valley Earth Guardians).