On September 20, 2019, more than 4,000 people filled the streets of Istanbul, Turkey, to demand climate justice and to protest the lack of action taken to address environmental issues. This event was part of the Global Week for Future, a series of international climate strikes that collectively featured more than four million attendees. 

Selin Gören ’24, one of the organizers of the event in Turkey, told The Politic that planning it was one of her proudest accomplishments.

Gören’s passion for environmentalism began two years ago, after a visit to a permaculture farm, where she realized that “the problems of the world can’t be studied solely from a textbook. We need to observe and remind ourselves, that we, as homo sapiens, are just a species among many others, not the master of all the others.” 

For Lex Schultz ’24, an activist from the U.S. state of Georgia, September 20, 2019 was also an important date. As the Logistics Director of the Atlanta Youth Climate Strike, she and hundreds of others gathered at the Georgia state capitol to demand government action against climate change. 

Schultz has served in leadership positions for environmental organizations such as Zero Hour—where she was her state’s Green Food Access Campaign Director—and U.S. Youth Climate Strike—where she was the National Political Director and is currently the Connecticut state lead. Environmental activism is especially meaningful because it has always been profoundly intertwined with her identity as a Cherokee activist.

In an interview with The Politic, Schultz said that “a huge part of my culture and a lot of indigenous cultures is the fact that we are stewards and protectors of the land. We have a great relationship with the Earth around us. A lot of our practices are rooted in what we can do with it, and how we can protect it. When the Earth begins to change, when climate change starts to hold, our traditions have to adapt. In essence, what got me into environmental activism was wanting to preserve our traditions.”

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Public acts of defiance against the status quo have long been a staple in activism. Physical gatherings and events have been historically integral mediums for catalyzing social change. Speeches—such as Nelson Mandela’s powerful rebuke of South African apartheid during the Rivonia Trial—have raised awarenessand brought injustices to light. Demonstrations—such as the peaceful protests and patriotic songs that characterized the Singing Revolution in the Baltics—have encouraged unity and galvanized action.

Yet how do we continue to effectively advocate for important issues in the midst of a global pandemic that has affected more than 22 million people and claimed almost 800,000 lives? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has become one of humanity’s most daunting modern challenges. One of the most tragic aspects of COVID-19 is the fact that much of the damage caused by this pandemic could have been avoided. Coronavirus has been a menace in of itself, but it has also brought to light many pre-existing flaws of society. From the severe deficiencies in the United States’ healthcare system to the unstable socioeconomic conditions of developing countries, coronavirus has exposed a variety of problems that have made it difficult for humans to address the pandemic and cope with its repercussions.

Coronavirus has become a difficult problem for environmentalists, especially because it weakens a key foundation of the movement: physical activism. The highly-infectious nature of the disease has turned organizing gatherings into a dangerous endeavor, as it could put the lives of attendees at risk. Not to mention, some governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to decrease their focus on the environmentalist cause, which they regard as trivial. 

For example, Japan has been criticized for certain flaws in their approach towards environmental issues. The nation has weak regulations regarding fossil fuels, lacks clear national policies in areas such as plastic use, and often manages waste poorly. With coronavirus, the importance of improving these aspects has been undermined. Attention and funding has also diminished.

“[For the Japanese government], the first priority is health, then the economy, then all the way down on the list is where the environment comes,” lamented Keiko Hirao, a professor for Sophia University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, in an interview with The Japan Times.

It is understandable for governments to consider their COVID-19 response as a priority, because it certainly is. However, this is no excuse to completely disregard the climate crisis and other issues related to the environment either. When analyzed closely, the coronavirus actually serves as a powerful reminder of the monumental importance of advocating for environmental issues. The pandemic elucidates upon the potential that we, as humans, have to either conserve our planet or destroy it—and it demonstrates that the former is often not as complicated as we might think it is. 

Take quarantines. Many countries around the world have ordered quarantines as precautions against the coronavirus. These have led to significant decreases in human and industrial activity, which in turn have had a positive impact on the environment. Worldwide air pollution levels have plummeted during global quarantine periods. There has been a large decrease in fossil fuels and harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and small particulate matters. Double-digit reductions have even been seen in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Mumbai, London and Seoul. An analysis by Carbon Brief projects a 1,600 million tonne reduction of global CO2 emissions this year due to COVID-19; this is the equivalent of 5.5 percent of total 2019 global emissions. 

Though perpetually quarantining the people of Earth would be an extreme action—not to mention unfeasible and restrictive—quarantines around the world have shown that moderate lifestyle changes and major sustainable initiatives could greatly contribute to the conservation of the environment. It proves that doing just a little more for our surroundings could truly make a monumental impact on society as we know it. 

Just as coronavirus will alter the future structure of global politics, economy, culture and health, it will alter the way environmentalism is carried out. The most important lesson that coronavirus has taught us about global environmental activism is that it must be continuously versatile, adaptable depending on its circumstances, to keep flourishing.

Like any other movement, environmentalism has gained much success and notoriety through physical gatherings and interaction. The Fridays for Future campaign, founded by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, is an example of this. In 2018, Thunberg and other young activists participated in strikes every day for three weeks in front of the Swedish parliament to protest lack of action on the climate crisis. These demonstrations soon went viral online. Today, the movement involves more than 13 million people from around the world—all who are doing the same thing as Thunberg, as well as advocating for environmental causes in distinct ways. 

Gören is an organizer for the Turkish chapter of Fridays for Future, and has helped expand it to include activists from 20 different cities. She is also involved in other environmental initiatives such as Extinction Rebellion, Turkish Permaculture Foundation and Earth is My Home Foundation (Yuvam Dünya). 

“I started feeling that it’s a moral obligation for me to become an advocate for the environment,” Gören told The Politic. “When I started listening to Greta’s speeches and met the Fridays for Future movement, I realized that spreading this movement among Turkish high schools would be a great way for me to turn my ideas and concern over the environment into concrete action.” 

In addition to strikes and demonstrations, physical events such as conferences and intergovernmental assemblies have also contributed to the environmentalist cause. One of the most important was the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), in which almost every government of the world signed the Paris Agreement—a landmark agreement dedicated to strengthening the global response to climate change. Since then, COP conferences have continued to be held annually, and other similar environment summits have been organized.

This year, coronavirus has made it impossible to organize physical gatherings for environmentalist causes, especially large-scale ones. COP26, which was to be hosted in the United Kingdom in November 2020, was delayed until next year. This is unfortunate because, as stated by an article in Resources magazine, “COP26 was supposed to be the setting where nations would announce more ambitious emissions reduction goals to align with the objectives laid out in the Paris Agreement. But now, especially with key questions…still unresolved, the future of the conference—and of global climate policy—is uncertain.”

Other events have also been postponed. The Convention on Biological Diversity—which was to establish new global rules to protect wildlife and plants—and the fourth session of the  Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction—which was to finalize a new High Seas Treaty and help promote sustainable ocean development—have both been moved to 2021. The 2020 UN Ocean Conference, originally scheduled for June 2020, has been delayed with no new date set.

However, environmentalism has been able to adapt to the situation. In some cases, it has even managed to become even more effective in promoting its goals. Due to COVID-19, environmental groups have been forced to rely more on technology, social media and online platforms to promote their causes. By learning to maximize these virtual tools, organizations have opened themselves to even more possibilities and diverse audiences than before.

Even Greta Thunberg expressed the need to be mindful of global health guidelines while staying dedicated to the environmentalist cause. She encouraged other activists to transition from doing physical strikes to digital ones with the help of social media and hashtags, something which she added would also help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

“The climate and ecological crisis is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, but for now…we’ll have to find new ways to create public awareness and advocate for change that don’t involve too big crowds—listen to local authorities,” said Thunberg in a tweet

“Since activism is best practiced on the streets, obviously this pandemic has made it very difficult…[but] we know that the climate crisis [won’t] wait for us to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. We need to be able to respond to both problems simultaneously,” Gören said. She added that Fridays for Future Turkey had “organized an online strike on April 3 on Zoom with actors, politicians, journalists and climate activists making speeches. Also, many famous singers in Turkey supported our strike by going live on their Instagram accounts.”

Many conferences and summits have also been adapted effectively. For example, this year’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was held remotely in April. Though it was challenging to coordinate, organizers were able to set up the event, centered around the development of a crucial global climate science report scheduled for release next year. Not only were they able to progress productively as planned, but they also featured greater attendance than usual, as most people were able to participate due to the virtual nature of the conference. The IPCC also reported that the virtual meeting even saved 368 tonnes of CO2 emissions because participants did not have to physically travel, showing its eco-friendliness.

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Environmental activists have also taken to other forms of media to promote their cause. Exposure on shows and documentaries has often become valuable in spreading awareness on environmental issues, educating people and encouraging action to protect Earth. 

For example, the fifth episode of the newest season of the popular make-over show Queer Eye—filmed in 2019 and released in June 2020—was centered around Abby Leedy, an 18-year-old environmental activist and organizer for the Sunrise Movement, which advocates for political action on climate change and environmental issues. 

Although the episode was mainly focused on helping Leedy achieve greater work-life balance in different ways, the shows also detailed her involvement in the Sunrise Movement, an important part of her life. 

“I made the decision to go on [Queer Eye] last summer because of the work I was doing with the Sunrise Movement,” expressed Leedy on the Sunrise Movement website. “I wanted to inspire young people nationwide to join us.” The trailer for season five of Queer Eye, released just two months ago, has received more than 460,000 views on YouTube.

Documentaries have also been a good resource to help teach audiences about the environment and its conservation in an engaging manner. Television networks such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel have done so for years. 

One notable recent example is award-winning Our Planet, a spectacularly-produced docuseries released in 2019 that showcases Earth’s beauty, as well as its vulnerability in the face of climate change. The show is on Netflix, which requires a paid subscription, but the company released episodes for free on YouTube in April and May of this year, allowing a wide range of people to learn more about the environment and develop a greater appreciation for the natural world. 

Our Planet is also narrated by Sir David Attenborough, a well-known British broadcaster and environmentalist. His frequent appearances in natural history documentaries, along with his decades-long activism, have made him a household name. The post-release interest in environmental issues and sustainability in the United Kingdom is even called the Attenborough effect.

Over the decades, a multitude of environmental issues have plagued our planet. These have been exacerbated by an increase in both the global human population and its activity levels. Tackling such problems will most likely continue to be strenuous and time-consuming, especially with the added challenge of the ongoing battle against coronavirus—but environmentalism isn’t going anywhere either. 

According to Schultz, environmentalism had been evolving even before COVID-19, but the process has sped up in response to the unique obstacle that is the pandemic. She said that with coronavirus, her organizations have used alternatives such as digital strikes, webinars and social media to promote their cause and stay coordinated.

“We’ve used apps quite heavily in our organizing. Without Slack, [for instance], I don’t think anything would ever get done because there is no other platform that could allow over a thousand people to work together on a project,” she told The Politic. “Technology has been so useful. As technology evolves, [environmental activism] also has to adapt to that.”

Schultz added that within the U.S. Youth Climate Strike organization, there “was a lot planned for the future that got side-tracked, but we’ve been trying to come up with new ways to do things during COVID-19, while also focusing on what we could do post-COVID-19. That [has been] a huge concern for us. What is going to happen [in the future]? Are big events going to ever occur again? [This period of time] has allowed us to refocus and redefine how we want our activism to be.”

By overcoming the adversity brought forth by coronavirus, environmentalism will continue to become stronger. It will not only expand its reach to more platforms, virtual and physical, but also to more people from diverse ages and backgrounds. It is imperative for all humans to support or contribute to the global effort to protect and conserve our surroundings. After all, there is only one Earth—and if environmentalism ceases its efforts for even one moment, we risk losing it for good.

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