Every Friday since the youth climate movement Fridays for Future began in 2018, students have been taking to the streets to protest for a greener future. Now, in times of the COVID-19 virus, such demonstrations have ground to a halt.
“Currently we can’t think about protesting on the streets,” said 16-year-old Fridays for Future activist Ariadne Papatheodorou from Athens. “We know we are in a crisis, as well as our health systems around Europe. We don’t want people to die, that’s why we are staying at home.”
And that is in keeping with climate activist Greta Thunberg’s calls to act responsibly. As the coronavirus spread around the world, she urged campaigners to avoid mass rallies, and invited them to take part in “digital strikes” instead.
Under the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline, participants are encouraged to post photos, videos, and messages for reforms to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees by the end of this century.
“A global pandemic doesn’t mean the climate crisis will stop, so we must continue to strike to keep up the pressure,” said Dylan Hamilton, a 15-year-old activist with the Fridays for Future group in Scotland.
The movement recently launched a Twitter handle called Fridays for Future Digital to continue its environmental protests by sharing slogans from all over the world, and used a press release to keep up the pressure on the fossil fuel industry and other polluters.
Few digital strikers so far
But so far, the digital protest is in no way comparable to real life demonstrations. According to Friday for Future Digital, just 1,200 people have participated in the online effort so far.
One of them is Lance Lau, a 10-year-old from Hong Kong, who protested alone in his neighbor’s garden.
“Despite the Hong Kong protests and police repression last year and now despite the outbreak of corona, I’m protesting,” Lance told DW.
He is no stranger to protesting in isolation. As a result of what he describes as an almost non-existent climate movement in Hong Kong and the violent repression of demonstrators, Lance says he has been protesting alone for 27 weeks.
Climate action fighting for attention
Fridays for Future India had hoped to be able to continue its climate demonstrations even after Europe and the US began to shut down, Ashiq Rahman from the Indian branch of the movement said. But India has since imposed its own lockdown.
“It’s a problem that people are diverting from the climate crisis to the corona crisis,” Rahman said, adding that the world is facing “a long-term crisis” of global warming.
He believes climate action should remain in focus even during the corona crisis.
In another effort to keep the momentum going, Fridays for Future has also announced plans to hold weekly digital webinars and discussion rounds with scientists, journalists, activists and other international high-level experts.
Climate action in crisis
Despite all this, online protests won’t “come close to the level of attention of the street protests last year,” said Dieter Rucht, a sociology professor and board member at the Institute for Social Movement Studies. He argues that Fridays for Future will struggle to mobilize people at a time when other issues take priority over saving the climate.
Although Rucht says “Fridays for Future is not dead,” he believes the movement, whose numbers had started to fall even before the coronavirus outbreak, “will shrink to a minimum.”
One of the activists’ key demands is a fall in emissions. With that now happening as a result of national economies grinding to a near halt, Rucht says that “argument is vanishing into thin air.”
Rethinking our future?