Lessons for the climate movement from COVID-19

The pandemic response provides inspiration, opportunity, and pathways to organizing on and adapting to climate change
Photo: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
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Fifty-two days ago I was standing in the middle of a circle of hundreds of people — holding hands, singing, chanting, and dancing — blocking an intersection in downtown Winnipeg. Six hundred others were doing the same across the city centre, in one of hundreds of actions in recent months in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people’s sovereignty and resistance to the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. In Winnipeg, actions had been ramping up since January (sometimes several occurred in one week), from peaceful occupations of MP offices, to round dances outside RCMP offices, to rallies and marches. It was the most people I’ve seen mobilized in my past three years organizing in Winnipeg.

That feels like a lifetime ago now. These past six weeks have seen the world transformed in ways that none of us could have imagined. Daily life around the world has ground to a halt as governments, organizations, and communities have taken unparalleled actions in a coordinated effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Every daily news update brings a new wave of equal parts grief, terror, awe, and curiosity. What will the other side of this pandemic look like? What does this mean for the climate justice and Indigenous solidarity work that I and so many others have been so deeply engaged in?

Many brilliant minds have thought and written to the question about what happens in the wake of crises generally, and the current crisis specifically. The pandemic has blown open what is normal and what is possible. In moments like this, sweeping changes are not only possible but inevitable. So many of us are asking: will that change take us to a more just society or deepen existing inequalities?

“Whenever crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear,” Peter C. Baker wrote recently in the Guardian. The deep inequities in our societies created through capitalism (which relies on cheap labour and perpetuates concentration of wealth) are coming to the forefront. In something as simple as who has the ability to follow public health guidelines — to shelter in a safe home, stock up on food, sanitize and wash hands frequently — and who doesn’t, the ways that this system has failed us are becoming clearer and clearer. Austerity measures have eroded health care and other public systems and social services, leaving us unprepared to deal with this public health emergency. And people are losing their lives and their loved ones as a result.

In the same way, we are witnessing the inability of our capitalist system, and the values it has taught us, to deal with the problem. We are having to rapidly pivot from a paradigm based on competition to one based on collaboration. We’re seeing governments take measures that protect the public good at the expense of the economy, and that's pretty unprecedented. Measures such as social isolation are only effective if everyone participates of their own volition. The individualistic mindset that we have been conditioned to adopt by our economic system does not apply and, in fact, would make us exponentially worse off.

Similar to (and simultaneous with) the pandemic, climate change is another deadly threat exacerbated by our capitalist system. The incredible, swift adaptation in response to COVID-19 — from historic state investment and interventions, to hundreds of community mutual aid groups, to worker strikes around the world — provides inspiration, opportunity, and lessons for organizing on and adapting to climate change.

There are learnings from the current crisis that we can carry into our continued work fighting the larger, mounting threat of climate change:

  1. Solidarity is powerful. The social solidarity that has ignited around responses to COVID-19 is beautiful and essential. Social distancing, as challenging as it is, is a monumental global act of social solidarity. Flattening the curve requires that people who are typically healthier and in lower-risk groups isolate in solidarity with those who are more vulnerable. Addressing climate change requires the same sense of social consciousness and international solidarity. Much as we practise social distancing for people at higher risk, so too must we take action to mitigate the climate impacts that may be worst felt by people in other demographics, in other parts of the world, and in future generations.
  2. Swift change is possible and the money to do it can be found. Though Indigenous and frontline communities and allies have been calling for urgent action on the climate crisis for decades, governments have failed to deliver the emergency response required. Often they have said that sufficient action isn’t economically feasible or that it isn’t in the “public’s interest.” COVID-19 has shown us that where there’s a (political) will, there’s a way — from experimenting with universal basic income, to housing people experiencing homelessness in hotels, to providing safe drug access to people struggling with addictions. Governments still have an incredible amount of power and, as we’ve seen, can transform the functioning of society in a matter of weeks if it is deemed to be a crisis. The question is, how do we illustrate the link between these crises and demand an equally swift and radical response to the larger, deadlier threat of climate change?
  3. Our labour (and our ability to withhold it) is valuable. As a friend said to me recently, COVID-19 is showing us that “economies and institutions need us as much as we need them.” In this moment, when the public’s gaze is focused on the labour that holds our society together (particularly underpaid, precariously employed, and care workers), workers are striking to demand better and safer working conditions. From Amazon and Instacart employees to public health nurses, people are walking off the job, asserting their collective power to refuse the status quo. Similarly, people withholding their labour and demanding climate action will be essential to winning a Green New Deal. We need a strike movement that shows how climate change is an integral part of these conversations on safe working and housing conditions. Building on the youth-led global climate strikes, the climate movement should show up for these workers while also engaging newly politicized folks in preparation for record mobilizations on the other side of this.
  4. Connecting our movements is more critical than ever. I attended a webinar this past week with speakers from the front lines of Wet’suwet’en, Line 3, and Grassy Narrows resistance efforts, connecting their work to the current moment. It was clear to me that the struggles on the front lines of fossil fuel development are continuing during this pandemic, and it is more critical than ever to connect these efforts and push forward a united front — not only within the movement for climate justice and Indigenous sovereignty but alongside those fighting for affordable housing, universal income, wealth redistribution, prison abolition, and more. As housing and poverty are beginning to be discussed as public health issues, the bigger picture is coming to light for many people. The opportunities for transformative change that can address many of these issues at once is more possible than ever.
  5. We must be ambitious in our vision. It is hard in moments of crisis to see the big picture, as immediate needs in our families and communities pile up and personal and collective grief weighs heavy. But as far as we have space, it is a time for ambition. In demanding radical transformation, we must resist having our imaginations confined by the capitalist systems we have been raised in. In times where we are seeing unprecedented change, we must be ambitious in our efforts to bring what is politically possible closer to what is scientifically and ethically necessary.
  6. Our language must be thoughtful and strategic. As we work to shape the narrative in the public sphere, we can’t talk about “going back to normal” because normal was hurtling us towards the edge of a cliff. We need clear language for the new world that we want to see on the other side of this. As a friend noted in conversation recently, we don’t need “more rooming houses to shelter those experiencing homelessness,” we need “accessible, congregate housing for all.” We don’t need only a rent freeze; must go beyond to reimagine ideas of property ownership and demand social housing and housing cooperatives. We must kindle ideas that bridge us into a new economic system that doesn’t hinge on competition.
  7. We must get creative in our connections. There’s no denying that COVID-19 poses complex challenges to the climate movement — cancelling climate strikes, rallies, and all forms of action involved in physically mobilizing people. And bringing people together face-to-face, be it in mass crowds or through one-on-one canvassing conversations, is critical for building relationships and growing the movement. In the absence of this, new ways of building and relating are emerging, from protesting in cars, to building Whatsapp messaging networks to connect neighbourhoods, to organizing national phone banks, from the abundance of webinars and virtual teach-ins to the range of new online communication tools that are popping up. Last Friday I attended a “digital rally” with over 900 participants and many more watching through livestreams and advocating against bailouts to big oil. The creative tactics that people are using to grow new coalitions across the country are inspiring and can bring lasting change to make the movement more accessible going forward.
  8. We’re deepening our understanding of consent and boundaries. As adrienne maree brown wrote in a recent post, “COVID-19 is here to teach us boundaries.” Through coming to understand and adapt to practices like social distancing, the pandemic has taught us how to approach our relationships — personal, professional, and otherwise — with a better understanding of consent and respect for each other's boundaries. It has also made a lot of us reflect on our own boundaries and capacities as we face the overwhelming amount of information to take in and work to be done. These lessons can shape our involvement beyond this moment, as a sustainable climate justice movement over the long haul will require respectful relationships.
  9. It’s a sprint, but also a marathon. Naomi Klein said in a recent webinar that organizing for radical change in this moment is “a race against time.” As she explained, institutions on the right will be using this moment as an opportunity to push forward the neoliberal agenda and tighten the strings of austerity, if we don’t build mass support for justice-based ideas first. But this race is also a marathon. With the recent models projecting a potential 18-month or longer time horizon for the pandemic and the need for climate justice organizing to continue long after that, we can’t afford to let the overwhelming nature of this moment deplete us. Those who have been doing movement work know that there is always a need to balance the urgency of the work with the need for sustained involvement. Find ways of summarizing information and news with each other so that you can tune out of some of the press conferences and take time away from the computer. Find ways of connecting and having conversations that can replenish your energy in the ways that gathering at events otherwise would.
  10. Do what only you can do. If you’re like me, you may be finding it hard to know where to put your energy in this moment. Surrounded by family and friends that are out of work, a community of people with diverse and urgent needs, a rapidly shifting political context demanding your attention, the need to figure out how to adapt your existing and ongoing organizing to this new world and stepping back to think about these larger questions of strategy are all competing for our time. Finding myself immobilized by these needs, I asked other organizers in my community how they were navigating it, and they responded simply, “Do what only you can do.” What is the work that your unique skills, knowledge, abilities, and experiences are suited to? Seek it out. Call on the people around you to do the same. Trust that others will take up the work that you can’t.

“How do we disrupt business as usual when business isn’t running as usual already?” podcast hosts Sandy and Nora asked recently. Things are changing rapidly. We don’t yet know which measures will be temporary and which will be lasting, but we have a critical opportunity to help shape and influence that. What we invest in now will shape the world that emerges on the other side of this. And we should take heart in the fact that things for which we have been advocating for so long — measures ranging from free transit to increased social security — are now being widely supported.

While there are plenty of causes for despair — billions in handouts for the Keystone XL pipeline, the allowance of continued man camps and construction of the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines, and the federal government giving public money to Amazon to deliver equipment rather than Canada Post, to name a few — there are also sources of hope and opportunity. As the climate movement finds its feet in this new world, I am inspired by the creativity and adaptation that I see. Let’s continue to learn from this moment, and let these learnings be momentum for this movement.

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