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Canceling Earth Day Was Never An Option — So We Took Things Digital

'Being a climate activist, at its very core, is about persistence in the face of catastrophe'

By Azalea Danes and Jamil Jackson

We are living through multiple global emergencies, including a pandemic, exacerbated economic inequality, and a climate crisis that has been wreaking havoc on marginalized communities for decades. Despite these challenges, the youth climate movement will not be stopped — we are only growing.

With social gatherings postponed indefinitely as people worldwide practice social distancing to stave off the novel coronavirus pandemic, youth activists are bringing methods of civil disobedience online. This week, the United States Youth Climate Strike Coalition, composed of youth groups across the U.S., helped create Earth Day Live — a three-day climate programming event marking the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970 — to affirm that climate action is needed now more than ever.

We’re not new to this: Last September, millions of youth took to the streets for the largest Global Climate Strike the world has ever seen, and we planned to do so again this Earth Day. But in our third month of organizing, countries around the world began instituting wide-scale social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. The fight against the novel coronavirus was and is necessary, but those new mandates also brought countless challenges to our lives and our communities, leaving those most vulnerable at disproportionate risk. The virus does not discriminate, but our society does, and Black and Latinx communities across the U.S. face the highest coronavirus-related death rates, underscoring the need for solutions rooted in justice that place people over profit and power.

And if you look past the ticker-tape updates about the virus, climate anxiety is still everywhere. Our battle against the fossil fuel industry has been a year-long trudge uphill, and the latest EPA rollbacks and fossil fuel subsidizations feel like blows against the progress we’ve made. Any celebration of the temporary drop we have in emissions is a false one, because it ignores the millions of people suffering and the risk of backsliding in our recovery.

Against all odds, the climate movement has persisted to organize national actions that encapsulate our demands, while preserving the safety of those most at-risk. We cannot march or gather in public without risking the health of those around us. We cannot protest in traditional ways, nor can we storm legislatures to demand our lawmakers vote with our interests in mind.  In Earth Day Live, we’ve prepared programming that outlines our need for big banks to divest from the fossil fuel industry, our rallying cries to turn out the youth vote, and our desire for immediate legislation that protects against further global warming and environmental disenfranchisement of our most vulnerable communities.

Pressing forward with solutions is challenging. But canceling Earth Day was never an option — being a climate activist, at its very core, is about persistence in the face of catastrophe.

We're taking to our laptops instead of the streets to join in meaningful livestream panel discussions, teach-ins, guest speeches, yoga classes, storytelling, and musical performances that span a wide range of topics, from Youth Climate Activism in the Global South to climate disasters. Countless organizations will hold social media "cyberstorms," or waves of online discussion, to target polluters and institutions moving too slowly on climate action and urge them to make change. And every famous climate activist you can imagine will be participating, including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Joaquin Phoenix, Lil Dicky, and Ziggy Marley.

Our movement sees the future ahead of us, wrought with natural disasters, food shortages, and effects we can’t yet conceptualize if warming isn’t kept well below the mandates dictated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We cannot stop fighting for the action that our planet and people require, even when it feels like the world is at a standstill. The climate crisis and COVID-19 exacerbate the need for greater awareness of social justice, especially given that, while these issues will affect everyone, racism, classism, and systematic inequalities are not mutually exclusive.

Organizing climate action will also change as a result of COVID-19 — not just during the present, but for the foreseeable future. This moment is teaching everyone that our actions (or lack thereof) impact those we’ve never met. The suffering we feel, the loss of precious moments in high school, and seeing our loved ones and strangers experiencing the pain that comes with a virus we have no experience with, has rooted in us a new type of empathy.

Just as we have to flatten the curve of infection from COVID-19, we must flatten the rate at which our planet warms. The politicians we elect in the next year must earn our vote by demonstrating that they take this crisis seriously. We’ll be able to grab hold of this newfound compassion when the public is able to devote attention to non-coronavirus related issues, and mobilize like never before.

Climate change is here. It’s ongoing. It’s nonpartisan — or should be — and the only way we can mitigate its worst effects is by working together as a global community. It all begins with Earth Day Live and we hope to see you there.

Azalea Danes is a 17-year-old climate justice activist and writer from New York City. She currently serves as one of the communications coordinator for Extinction Rebellion Youth US, as well as the Director of Communications for TREEage. 

Jamil Jackson is a 16-year-old Little Rock, Arkansas, native who serves as a Communications Coordinator for Extinction Rebellion Youth US.