The large crowds and brightly coloured placards of the school climate strikes became some of the defining images of 2019.
“There would be lots of chanting and the energy was always amazing,” says Dominique Palmer, a 20-year-old climate activist from London who has been involved with the strikes for more than a year. “Being there with everyone in that moment is truly an electrifying feeling. It’s very different now.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to large gatherings of people the world over, and the climate strikers have had to change their tactics. Now, instead of big crowds they hold mass video calls, and instead of marching with banners and placards they post photos with hashtags.
“We’ve started digital striking because we want to keep the momentum going, so that when the pandemic is contained we still have that energy and we can go back on to the streets,” says Palmer.
Every Friday, the strikers post photos of themselves holding a sign with a message about the climate crisis along with #DigitalStrike or #ClimateStrikeOnline, and they congregate in large Zoom calls, often with more than 100 people.
“It’s the greatest call but also the most chaotic call you could ever imagine,” says Rikke Nielsen, 19, from Denmark. “Sometimes people bring animals; one time someone was playing the saxophone.”
The calls are giving the strikers a unique opportunity to connect with people they would not normally get the chance to meet. “I think we will start to see more of an international perspective in every country because of this,” says Nielsen.
The digital strikes are not the only online climate activism. In the US, groups are preparing a three-day livestream to mark Earth Day, an annual event celebrated around the world on 22 April to demonstrate support for protecting the environment.
Fridays For Future (FFF) is gearing up for a 24-hour livestream on 24 April to showcase strikers around the globe, and is hosting a regular weekly webinar, Talks for Future, which features climate scientists and other experts.
Activists are also using the digital strikes to create Twitter storms, bombarding companies and people in power with tweets at a set time. Last month, FFF Digital and the Polluters Out campaign teamed up to target Shell and the Adani Group, demanding a stop to new fossil fuel projects.
This new reliance on social media has created challenges and opportunities. For Leah Namugerwa, a 15-year old striker from Kampala, it has allowed her to better promote her online petition for Uganda to ban plastic bags, but it has also made it difficult for her to reach people. “My activism and message targets policymakers and people in power, but social media in Uganda isn’t widely used, especially by elder people in positions of power,” she says.
Deniz Cevikus, 12, from Istanbul, who usually protests alone, enjoys talking to more people online. “During a typical solo strike I can talk to 20 or 30 people at most, but with the same [digital] strike I can reach thousands of people on social media,” she says.
“Striking before the virus was more challenging because I skipped school every Friday, missed classes, had to make up for them later and stood for a few hours in cold weather. My persistence to strike at a different location each week made it even harder. This feels a bit like vacation.”
Dylan Hamilton, 15, from Linlithgow in Scotland, has dabbled with the video platform TikTok as a means of connecting with other young people. “I think it’s quite a good way of getting people involved. And also, we are just teenagers, so it’s nice to be a normal teenager and communicate with other teenagers that way.”
While the activists are embracing the potential for social media to help them get their message across in new ways, most agree they cannot wait to return to traditional on-the-ground campaigning.
“We are more present on the streets, and we know it’s not a social media bubble – we’re reaching every single person that walks by us, not just the people who are already worried about the climate crisis,” Nielsen says.
As the pandemic dominates headlines, the climate movement is trying to strike a difficult balance between continuing to stress the urgency of its cause while allowing space for coronavirus to take priority.
“It’s very important to keep talking about climate change, but we also get that we need to focus on the coronavirus,” says Hamilton. “We know that you can’t do everything all at once.”
There is concern that the climate crisis could be sidelined for months if not longer, and that interest in climate strikes could dwindle – not least because the rebellious act of striking from school is not as powerful when schools are closed.
“We’ve lost a bit of motivation,” Hamilton adds. “We don’t know when we’re going to be able to do the big protests again.”
But there is still cause for optimism. Many hope a break from continuous campaigning might bring activists back stronger, while among the tragedy of the pandemic the world has shown at least that it can change.
“Seeing how things shifted so quickly gives us hope,” says Palmer. “When politicians tell us things don’t happen that fast, this is just evidence that it can be done. This was such a rapid response to a crisis. If we also treat the climate crisis like an emergency, like an imminent threat, it is definitely possible for us to achieve the world that we want.”