Temperature check

Aruna Chandrasekhar on how climate activism has kept going in a time of isolation.

Where we would have been: Fridays for Future activists leave placards outside the Reichstag in Berlin,
Germany, as an alternative climate protest. Kay Nietfeld/DPA/Alamy Live News

Covid-19 has exposed the cracks in the system that climate activists have warned of for years. A spiky pathogen has made us more aware of just how connected we are in a globalized world.

The pandemic has also thrown a spanner in the global climate protest movement that had been gathering critical momentum.

‘We listen to the science, and right now the science says that mass gatherings will cause harm. But that won’t stop us striking,’ Greta Thunberg said on Twitter in March. #FridaysForFuture has gone online, but youth-led climate action in times of coronavirus is not stopping at just a hashtag. In April, over 230,000 took part in a digital school strike livestream and activists in Berlin circumvented Covid-19 restrictions by laying thousands of placards outside the German parliament – a demonstration without the people.

On 4 May, Thunberg and 15 other children urged the UN to hear a legal claim against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey, who they say are violating their commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by failing to curb emissions.

Conversely, it can feel like everyone has joined the school strikers, as we watch states of all shapes and economic might fail humanity. Suddenly, as jobs vanish overnight, ideas such as a universal basic income, less polluted cities and a Green New Deal seem less far-fetched than ever before. This alongside a drop in emissions. Will any of these things survive beyond the Covid-19 lockdown? Will this be the tipping point that turns us all into climate activists, conscious of the boundaries that endless growth has breached?

For Rinchin, a filmmaker and organizer in Central India’s coal belt, pausing her activism is not an option. In late April, the indigenous communities she worked with won a historic victory when India’s National Green Tribunal ruled for the first time that coal companies would have to pay damages to them for harming their environment and health.

‘Because people’s lungs have been compromised over generations with air pollution, the number of comorbidities will rise,’ she tells me from the city of Bhopal, where people affected by the 1984 gas tragedy were among the first to die from Covid-19.

Amid India’s cruel lockdown, Rinchin, and many like her, are hauling sacks of supplies to feed thousands of migrant industrial workers who had laboured in polluting industries when they set off on foot to make their way back home, hundreds of miles away. ‘People from across all movements are coming forward – going to courts, volunteers are out on the road handing out relief. But the government is still arresting activists, still going after dissidents.’

‘The reality for any social movement is in helping their communities and we don’t understand that enough in the “developed world”,’ says Nathan Thanki from Demand Climate Justice, talking to me from London.

Even during a lockdown, corporations the world over are being made exempt from restrictions and people are being pushed back to work, without enough health and safety measures to prevent horrific accidents. Nations that have been criticized for their handling of the Covid-19 crisis are busy expanding their fossil-fuel footprint and arresting environmental activists. Countries that can barely afford PPE for doctors are bailing out aviation and oil companies.

If there’s one thing that isolation has taught us, it is the value of community, of kindness, care and collective action. In the brave new world that lies beyond our cocoons, let’s hope it endures, as storms and heatwaves come closer to our doors.