Fifty years ago, the world’s first Earth Day brought 20 million people together to stop unchecked pollution and start respecting forests, oceans, rivers, wetlands, and wildlife. Images from that day show young people gathering in fields and in front of government buildings, holding signs and marching down the street, arm in arm.
This year’s celebration will look very different.
The world is facing two unprecedented public health crises—climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic—and next week, young people from all over will be uniting to fight one while social distancing to fight the other.
So, Earth Day 2020 is going digital. Some of the same young organizers who brought us last September’s Climate Strike—the largest mobilization for climate action in history—are busy planning Earth Day Live, a three-day event that will livestream activists and ideas from all over the world to your screen. The event will include everything from teach-ins and training sessions on environmental topics to performances from artists like Angélique Kidjo and Jason Mraz and panels with environmental leaders like 350.org’s Bill McKibben and Gina McCarthy, the president of NRDC (onEarth’s publisher), and social justice champions like Ilyasah Shabazz.
“We’re trying to use the tools we have at home to really bring communities together in a time of pure physical isolation,” says Shiv Soin, a sophomore at New York University and the cofounder of youth-led advocacy group TREEage. So yes, the organizers still want you to make a sign (ideally with some spare cardboard and markers or paint you already have).
Anyone with an internet connection can tune in as well as call on political leaders to take urgent climate action—without which the world could face catastrophic levels of warming by the end of the century.
The stakes have never been higher. COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerabilities and limitations of our economies, health care, and social safety nets. “Societal cracks are being exposed,” Soin says. And, as Lana Weidgenant of the Washington, D.C.–based Zero Hour points out, it’s clear that some of the same communities that are being most directly affected by the virus may face the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis too.
But the pandemic has also demonstrated the world’s capacity to shift in the face of an emergency. Over the past few months, we have reassessed what’s possible in order to protect ourselves and our neighbors—a lesson that could serve the global community well in the effort to combat climate change. Here’s how to join the global shift to fight for climate justice.
Day One, April 22: Strike
During past strikes, students and young workers made headlines by walking out of schools and offices and taking to the streets. In doing so, young people have catapulted climate change into an international movement, millions strong. This year, striking is more likely to involve signing out of virtual classrooms or putting up an out-of-office e-mail response, but the young activists’ determination to fight for their futures remains the same.
Theirs is a new kind of environmentalism—one that puts people first and the fight for justice front and center. On Earth Day, a diverse group of performers, artists, and advocates—including musicians Nahko Bear and Madame Gandhi and actors Joaquin Phoenix and Megan Boone—are on the docket to bring us perspectives and stories from around the country, particularly from Indigenous communities and others on the front lines of climate change. As Khristen Hamilton, also from Zero Hour, says, “Storytelling is a really great way to share exactly what’s going on in the movement—not from a scientific view, but exactly how it impacts people on the frontlines.”
For many, the event may also provide a space to mourn. “We are most affected when we hear each other’s stories and see how overarching and intersectional the climate crisis is—how it spreads and seeps into all aspects of our lives,” says Madeline Canfield, a regional organizer for the Sunrise Movement. This is something Canfield says is palpable in her own hometown of Houston, a fossil fuel hub that’s been in the path of increasingly powerful storms, such as 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. “We’ve been having back-to-back, quote-on-quote, ‘500-year floods.’ We were watching our schools flood. Students were displaced from their homes because of flooding. I have friends who are suffering from PTSD,” she says. “This was a traumatic experience ingrained into the mentality of our community.”
Day Two, April 23: Divest
Peek behind the curtain of Big Oil and Big Ag and you’ll find a pipeline of cash propping them up—fueling planet-warming pollution and mass deforestation. “Just as there are billionaires behind the fossil fuel industry, there are massive corporate interests behind industrial agriculture and factory farming,” Weidgenant says. On the second day of this year’s Earth Day, the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition is planning to call on some of the world’s leading companies to take their money elsewhere. Some of the group’s biggest targets are big banks that give billions and billions (and billions more) to fossil fuel companies, insurers of ill-conceived projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, and financial managers that invest in the commodities that are destroying the planet’s forests, waterways, and climate.
Instead of being complicit in the climate crisis, these powerful institutions could invest in new economic systems—ones that support human rights and Indigeneous sovereignty, which are too often compromised when a new pipeline is approved or another acre of the Amazon is cleared to grow palm oil. Individuals and universities—which often have massive endowment funds backing fossil fuels that have sparked widespread student pushback—should also shoulder some responsibility for their investments. Tune in to learn how to clean up your portfolio and to encourage your university to do the same.
Day Three, April 24: Vote
According to a study issued by the United States Conference of Mayors, 80 percent of young American voters, ages 18 to 29, consider climate change a “major threat” to humanity. For the final day of Earth Day Live, the organizers plan to launch a massive (and friendly) competition between regions of the country to see who can register the most voters in a single day. Inspired strikers can also push their elected officials to take real action to protect their constituents from the effects of climate change—which could be anything from supporting renewable energy jobs to taxing carbon emissions to making communities more resilient to storms, floods, erosion, and wildfires.
Many strikers are already well-practiced political organizers. Canfield, for one, has been advocating to make Houston’s climate action plan, which aims for net-zero emissions citywide by 2050, more ambitious and equitable—driven by renewables rather than the city’s old oil and gas standbys. She also hopes the city will achieve net-zero emissions decades sooner than its stated deadline. Soin’s climate advocacy group TREEage has also prioritized local climate legislation. “A lot of organizations have been focusing so heavily on the national level, which is extremely important, but they’ve done so while leaving out the states with limited resources,” Soin says. TREEage is instead prioritizing action on the city and state fronts “to use local power to get our demands met.”
Just like Earth Day should really be every day, this 72-hour climate strike is the continuation of an ongoing fight in which everyone has a part to play. As Isaias Hernandez, the cofounder of the environmental magazine and art collective Alluvia, says, the movement has room for everyone’s passions: “If you’re an artist, if you’re vegan, if you’re zero-waste—you’re an environmentalist.” And by all coming together now, perhaps the celebrants of Earth Day’s 100-year anniversary will remember the social distancers from 2020 as the activists that made the most meaningful social connections in the fight for the future.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
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