How Environmentalist Organizations are Reordering Priorities in the Wake of the COVID Crisis
The COVID crisis caught environmentalist organizations at a difficult time. The Trump administration has repeatedly dismissed concerns about climate change since 2016 and showed no signs of changing course in the waning months of 2019. For example, in November of 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified the United Nations that it would formalize the United States exit from the Paris Climate Accords, an international agreement designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. This continued hostile posture towards climate change action has been especially unfortunate from the standpoint of environmentalists considering that the many climatologists made dire forecasts about the status of the earth’s climate at the start of 2020. On March 20, the World Meteorological Organization went as far as to release a report concluding that January 2020 was the warmest in recorded human history. The immediate impact of climate change was also made dramatically apparent through the devastation of the Australian wildfires, which raged from late 2019 and into early 2020 and destroyed 11 million hectares of land. Researchers from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute determined in March that warmer temperatures had made the occurrence of such as a massive fire in Australia more likely.
Throughout the first few months of 2020, many environmentalist organizations were still in the midst of pushing legislators for a robust response to climate change in light of this difficult situation. For example, in a February 12 press release, Sierra Club deputy legislative director Kirin Kennedy noted “The scale of the climate and extinction crises demand more than half measures from our leaders”. On January 13, a coalition of climate groups including Fridays for the Future USA, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and the International Indigenous Youth Council had planned a series of actions leading up to Earth Day 2020 including rallies, teach-ins, and marches. The document referenced the seriousness of new developments in climate change as providing the impetus for these actions, including the fires in Australia.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 to the United States in March and the subsequent death and lockdowns forced environmental activists to confront the spiraling crisis while also maintaining focus on climate change. A group of organizations calling themselves Stop the Money Pipeline including the Sierra Club, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and many others, reacted to the crisis by asking Congress not to turn away from the climate change crisis as a result of the COVID situation. In a press release from March 20 the coalition demanded Congress take “clear, decisive actions that require banks, asset managers, and other financial institutions to phase out investments in fossil fuels”. The Sunrise Movement responded by promoting a more general populist message through it’s “People’s Bailout” platform, which requires the government to provide healthcare and expanded workers’ protections as well as to commit to ending climate change by restructuring the economy. At the same time, different organizations began pushing for policies to address the impacts of the pandemic separately from concerns about climate change. For example, the Sierra Club circulated a petition asking for the Department of the Interior to immediately close national parks in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The continued flurry of activity by activist groups despite the pandemic is a testament to the versatility and resilience of the movement as a whole. The ability to pivot to new issues while holding on to core values is a sign of the environmentalist movement embracing intersectionality with other issues and having built strong coalitions with different issue groups. With states beginning to reopen their economies for business as new cases of COVID decline, the organizations will have to continue to adapt to the aftershock of the crisis, decide whether their priorities will shift again, and see what kind of victories they can achieve in this very trying year.