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Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 11, 2020

How do you strike for the climate when everyone’s stuck at home?

Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

With the coronavirus putting a halt to in-person gatherings, climate activists are having to get creative to keep up the momentum from last year’s hugely successful strikes.

In Lambton Quay, Aotea Square, the Octagon and dozens of other hot zones across the country, 170,000 protestors packed together in intergenerational crowds to chant, hug and share placards and snacks. Seven months ago, the national climate strike was a political triumph. Today, it has all the markers of a viral catastrophe.

One of the few silver linings of a generation-defining cataclysm like the coronavirus is that everything can change in its aftermath. Just as the welfare state was embedded following World War Two, many activists on the left believe this is an opportunity to address fundamental issues like chronic poverty, economic inequality and, most of all, climate change.

But those same activists face a deep irony. While Covid-19 has made the far-reaching reform they’ve long called for seem possible, it has also stolen their ability to seize the moment with the immense in-person protests which have defined New Zealand’s modern climate movement.

The economic carnage that will be wrought by the coronavirus freeze is hard to overstate. In the first month of lockdown, 33,000 New Zealanders went on a benefit. The Ministry of Social Development is preparing for up to 300,000 more. Countless businesses will close. Many of those which remain will do so through government support and stimulus.

As a result, that stimulus package will be enormous. The government has already announced a support program of approximately $25 billion, and more will come in this Thursday’s Budget. Faced with this surge in government spending, climate activists are determined to direct the cash flow towards creating a green future. “This is the first time in my generation that we’ve had billions of dollars on the table,” noted Amanda Larsson, Greenpeace NZ’s lead climate campaigner. “It’s a chance for a total economic reset. That’s why we’ve been calling for a green Covid recovery.”

The 2019 Climate Strike in Auckland. Photo: Sylvie Whinray

It’s a rare moment of hope for the climate movement. A 2007 Australian survey of young adolescents – the demographic now at the forefront of climate advocacy – found that a quarter were “so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older”, a form of ‘eco-anxiety’ which has gotten progressively worse as the scale of the climate crisis has grown and the ambition of governments has stagnated.

Covid-19 cast a new light on the climate challenge. “We realised that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to reshape our world,” said Coco Green-Lovatt, a lead organiser with New Zealand’s #SchoolStrike4Climate movement. “Maybe a year ago, our demands might not have seemed like they were going to be implemented. But then Covid-19 happened, and we could see that our demands were both crucial and possible.”

That hope has prompted radical creativity about what a green recovery could look like. Commentators like AUT lecturer David Hall suggested a massive community funding program for projects like the restoration of waterways and wetlands. #SchoolStrike demanded that the government take the opportunity to transition to 100% renewable energy, better fund public transport, create walkable cities and spend billions on improving household energy efficiency. Greenpeace released a ‘Green Covid Response’ plan which proposed attaching decarbonisation and labour rights conditions to corporate bailouts, funding a Department of Conservation-led ‘Conservation Corps’ to “eradicate pests, plant native trees and restore critical habitats”, and spending billions of dollars to develop solar and wind energy.

“There’s a huge amount of interest in this moment where we’re spending so much, in terms of commentary,” observed Larsson. But she doubts whether commentary alone will be enough. “We’re missing something in terms of not being able to mobilise people in real life.” Lockdown has prevented the kind of mass, in-person protesting which the climate movement has relied on to draw attention and apply pressure. Even when the nation transitions to alert level two, there will likely still be scepticism of large public events.

It’s a blow for a climate movement which had been soaring on the success of last years’ climate strikes. “When Covid-19 happened, a lot of us were feeling quite beaten down by it,” commented Green-Lovatt. “We were planning for our biggest year yet. It was election-year, we had a new team, we could really escalate our movement and be bigger than ever before.”

To regain some strength, climate groups like #SchoolStrike are shifting to digital. The group has scheduled an Zoom “Online Strike” for May 15th. Strikers will put #unitebehindclimate placards in their windows and draw their vision of a green New Zealand with chalk at the end of their driveway. It’s an amalgam of lessons from lockdown: the virality of window teddy bears, the interactivity of Anzac Day’s #StandAtDawn event, the necessity of keeping people engaged through more than just funny Zoom backgrounds. But details are still scarce, and without the vibrancy of an in-person event even the organisers acknowledge it likely won’t match up to their previous strikes. “We might not get the same numbers that we did last year,” conceded Green-Lovatt.

Scenes from the 2019 Climate Strike in Auckland

Greenpeace has also been trying to transition to digital platforms. It has encouraged its supporters to use Twitter and Facebook to call the government’s attention to their policy ideas. But the commercialised nature of social media has been a challenge. According to Larsson, “In digital spaces, it’s really dominated by who can pay the most, who can afford visibility and reach.” Crucially, activists like Larsson also worry that digital advocacy doesn’t have the same political power as in-person protest. “When people take time out of their day to physically go somewhere and be part of something, it demonstrates a level of commitment… it takes a lot more to get out on the street protesting than to share something on social media.”

Unable to protest on Parliament’s lawn and struggling to spread their message via social media, climate organisations like #SchoolStrike and Greenpeace have also turned to more conventional political advocacy. According to Green-Lovatt, “Because we can’t go out onto the streets anymore, we’ve taken a more behind-the-scenes approach. We’ve been sending ministers letters, we’ve been requesting Q&As with [minister of finance] Grant Robertson, we’ve been submitting to select committees, and now we’re putting together an open letter.”

The climate movement has had some past success with this approach. Generation Zero – a group of university students and 20-something professionals – was the driving force behind the Zero Carbon Act signed into law last year. Generation Zero drafted the initial legislation and directly lobbied politicians to support it, prompting the Green Party to pick it up as a key policy in the lead-up to the 2017 election. Generation Zero, leading a coalition of other environmental advocacy groups, then continued to apply pressure on parties throughout Parliament to try prevent the act from being watered down.

But the Zero Carbon Act is different from the reforms climate organisations are now pursuing. It took over four years for the act to go from an idea to legislation and is primarily focused on setting (largely unenforceable) targets for greenhouse gas reductions to guide the private sector and government. By contrast, many activists see this as a moment for immediate and far-reaching reform which compels, not just signposts, change.

Photo: Sylvie Whinray

Even with conventional political advocacy, these climate groups are worried that they will be outgunned. “People with lots of resources have dedicated lobbyists who can sit in Wellington and whisper in the ears of politicians all the time,” said Larsson. “As an ordinary citizen, you don’t have that kind of access. Your power is in numbers and being able to collectively come together and show a strength of movement.”

This mismatch is especially worrying for a climate movement already skeptical of the Ardern government’s climate ambition and convinced it needs to apply pressure to achieve results. “This government has been bold in its rhetoric, but if you look at the policies they’ve put in place over the past few years, they’ve been very timid about acting on that vision,” observed Larsson. “They would need to break the mould of the past few years and be really visionary.”

Until the lockdown lifts and the public become comfortable with public gatherings, the climate movement may have to rely on old victories to convince the government to take such a visionary approach. “Think about the huge role that the climate movement played last year, with the student strikers, who were able to mobilise tens of thousands of people onto the streets,” said Abi Smith, Greenpeace NZ’s lead activism organiser. “Those aren’t memories or images that are lost in people’s minds. So when we’re communicating to government people online, they remember the fact that the movement has been able to mobilise people up and down the country before.”

The climate movement has long been a political underdog. The coronavirus has changed many things, but that has stayed the same. As they pursue radical post-Covid change, climate activists have little choice but to do so through a conventional mix of lobbying, social media posts and old memories. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough.

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