The Impacts of Covid-19 on Climate Activism

A year ago, on November 29, 2019, I was standing among hundreds of other Toronto residents in Nathan Phillips Square across from the Old City Hall. Everyone had come together to demand climate action despite the cold weather. After serving as a marshal in the previous global climate strike a month prior, I had seized the first opportunity I could to do it again. 

The crowd was mostly made up of high school students who had taken the day off from school to advocate for sustainability and legislative change. The younger activists I spoke with were anxious about the future, unsure whether they would even have the opportunity to save the planet.

Before March of this year, protest participation was increasing globally, with approximately six million people joining in global climate strikes across the world on September 2019. Some news sources went as far as calling 2019 “the year of climate consciousness.” Although the issue of climate change isn’t a recent development, 2019 saw an unprecedented increase in activism in social and political circles.

Multiple environmental disasters worldwide also contributed to the united climate action movement. In the summer of 2019, a disastrous heatwave took over Southern Australia, causing devastating bushfires across the region. Appropriately nicknamed “Black Summer,” the ecological and environmental impacts of the fires dominated international media. People across the world came together to spread awareness and collect donations. Get Up! Action for Australia and Connect4Climate are among the top fundraising campaigns that took over the online sphere.

Social media also played a fundamental role in spreading awareness and increasing participation at coordinated protests. Organizations such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion spread internationally through social media engagement, accumulating new members each day. The generational shift in the movement was also becoming exceedingly apparent due to the reach of social media. Youth participation in protests and digital campaigns helped spread the word farther than ever before. These young activists were no longer just fighting to keep the environment healthy; they were fighting for their own lives. In 2019, during the September 25 Global Climate Strike, hundreds of Torontonian children and adolescents refused to attend school and gathered in front of the Ontario Legislative building. 

“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up,” stated Greta Thunberg at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit. Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish founder of Fridays for Future, was awarded TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019 for her contributions to climate activism and environmental awareness. Her stand against the indolence of political figures toward the climate emergency inspired millions, many of whom were around Thunberg’s age. In the course of a year, Thunberg had gone from participating in solitary protests across from the Swedish Parliament House to leading millions through the streets of major cities.

As the year came to an end and 2020 began, there was only one other issue that caused public concern on a similar scale to climate change. A new virus was spreading around the world, and its infection rates were beginning to cause international concern. In March, this novel coronavirus, named Covid-19, was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. As society redesigned itself to accommodate the recommended safety measures, trivial components of daily life, such as in-person social gatherings, were postponed indefinitely. The global pandemic was the only thing on people’s minds. 

Environmental activism transformed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to stay-at-home orders and lockdown measures, more and more people were becoming a part of the movement. In March, with the emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic, social distancing measures were established to stop its spread. Small and large companies alike were forced to downsize and dismiss some employees since they could no longer operate like before. Employees considered imperative to the fundamental operations of society were asked to continue their work. When we think of essential workers in this context, the first that come to mind are the ones who provide us with healthcare services and daily necessities. 

However, the bigger picture suggests that our survival depends on more than just hospitals and grocery stores. 

It is essential that we don’t lose our focus on what is truly vital for the continuation of society just because we are prioritizing life in the current pandemic. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have 10 years to take radical action to protect our environment before an ecological Armageddon becomes inevitable. This means that the responsibility of raising environmental awareness and demanding legislative change falls on everyone’s shoulders. We are all essential workers in the fight against climate change.

While we must prioritize the ongoing health crisis, especially with the threat of a second wave, we cannot stop advocating for climate action and significant legislative change. That is a luxury my generation cannot afford. Just because life currently appears to be on hold does not mean that the climate emergency has also been adjourned. What we do in the next decade will determine whether or not our children will have a chance at survival. We must listen to health officials and follow infection prevention measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and hopefully develop herd immunity to protect the most vulnerable. However, it is equally vital, perhaps now more than ever, that we follow the recommendations made by environmental scientists and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

We are slowly adapting to the new social distancing measures to establish a new “normal.” We do not know when we can return to our old habits, but we’re nonetheless able to survive in these extraordinary circumstances. As such, it is essential to continue the fight toward climate action and sustainability. How we feel about wearing masks in public and attending virtual classes instead of in-person lectures won’t matter by 2030 if we forget about the climate emergency. As much as I miss going to campus and attending in-person lectures, surrounded by my peers, I understand how important it is for me to stay home. This is why I am fighting for climate action today. Just because an environmental catastrophe won’t happen in my lifetime does not mean I can condemn the next generation.

The connection between climate change and the global pandemic is far too alarming to ignore. A study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that Covid-19 infections are more likely to prove fatal in areas with high amounts of air pollution. The environmental conditions created by climate change make the perfect setting for most infectious diseases to strive in. Taking climate action would not only save us from extinction, but it would also help us defend against another global pandemic. Nature makes us reap what we sow, and for many years now, we’ve been taking our earth for granted. Unless we exchange our old habits with sustainable alternatives, we will continue to face one tragedy after another. Over the past eight months of being confined to our homes, we’ve had the opportunity to see how there is still hope for change. Significant improvements have been observed in the air quality of major cities as lockdowns have kept residents at home. This pandemic has served as a global experiment on how our daily actions influence the climate and how we still have the opportunity to reverse some of the damage. 

Amid the pandemic, the traditional picket and poster protests have been replaced by live-streams and virtual teach-ins. On October 21, the Fridays for Future’s Toronto chapter participated in a Zoom lecture by author Seth Klein. He spoke about his book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, and the Canadian Constitution’s climate action handicaps. Similar events are being organized around the world every day. 

An open letter addressed to the European Parliament about its approval of the new Common Agricultural Policy was published on October 25. The letter urges the European Commission to withdraw the agriculture policy, which is expected to cause immense environmental damage due to its support of unsustainable farming practices. More than 55,000 signatures were collected in only five days, and the number of people pushing to withdraw the new policy continues to increase. 

“Know this as well,” reads the letter. “We understand the science, and we know what is at stake. We are watching, and we will never forgive you.”

While some view the global pandemic as a threat to the climate action movement, others believe it is an opportunity to engage a broader audience and prompt sufficient change. Last year saw many favourable developments in environmental activism, but the issue of climate change has followed us into 2020 and will continue to threaten our lives if we remain inactive. I follow Covid-19 safety guidelines so the more vulnerable and older individuals in our society don’t get sick and live long lives. However, I fight for climate action so my children and grandchildren can get the chance to live at all. We need to recognize the significance of the climate emergency and continue the fight toward change just as we’ve continued the other essential operations of society. 

Images of hundreds of displaced animals with third-degree burns carried out by Australian firefighters spread across the internet last summer. Families took refuge in lakes as tornadoes of fire consumed their homes. People worldwide saw and spread these heartbreaking photos that captured their fight for survival, demonstrating how natural disasters affect people from all regions of the world. The events in Australia were so impactful because they weren’t just a mundane hardship. Natural disasters can take place anywhere and anytime, destroying everything in their path and leaving nothing behind. Just because we don’t come face to face with the disastrous impacts of climate change in our daily lives doesn’t mean it’s any less crucial. As a matter of fact, it is the most dangerous threat to humankind’s survival at present.

Toronto is under more danger than we may have initially believed, as it’s one of the top cities expected to undergo a significant environmental catastrophe before 2050. The extreme weather patterns that we’ve been experiencing these past few years are just minor symptoms of a much larger disease consuming the world. Major urban areas such as Toronto are at an increased risk due to the heat island effect caused by asphalt surfaces. The Clean Air Partnership’s report on climate change states that residents agitated by the smoggy Toronto summers will have to tolerate even worse conditions as the “trend of oppressive summer heat is expected to continue and increase in severity.”

We see the impacts Covid-19 has had on society every day. When entering a store or restaurant, we have to make sure we wear a mask and have a thermometer pointed at us immediately. We remind ourselves constantly to hold in our sneezes despite seasonal allergies and refrain from touching our faces. These factors, alongside many others, make sure we don’t forget about the pandemic and take measures to ensure everyone’s safety. 

While constant reminders of the climate emergency aren’t posted on storefronts, we are responsible for taking action and reminding politicians of the threat we face. As we continue our lives indoors, we may not be able to see the impacts of climate change, but it is essential we make our voices heard.

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