Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Climate Justice Cornell has been staging protests since early December 2019, but now plans to take their movement online with the announcement of online classes.

March 16, 2020

Climate Activists Turn Digital During COVID-19 Outbreak

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As thousands of students leave campus and classes transition from in-person to online, climate activists are finding ways to maintain social movements in a time of social distancing.

“How do you take this movement virtual? How long is this going to last? These are all questions we are asking ourselves,” said Alyssa Marcy grad, a member of the Ithaca chapter of the Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement that uses civil disobedience to advocate against climate change.

Even though the in-person strategies it originally planned on are no longer possible, the organization’s Ithaca chapter is still working on public outreach in support of the Ithaca Green New Deal, a plan which includes promises of a green building code for new construction.

The group hopes to replace  its original plans for informal meetings and focus groups with  virtual interactions, such as Zoom call meetings. However, Marcy said she is concerned about the accessibility of digital public outreach, because some people may not have the time or technical knowledge to participate in virtual meetings.

“We are trying to bring people together,” Marcy said.

Meanwhile, Climate Justice Cornell will use the time from now until classes resume to educate its activists to prepare for future protests, said Nadia Vitek ’22, a CJC organizer. Divestment recently passed in the Student Assembly, the last of the five University assemblies to do so. It is unclear when the issue will be taken up by the Board of Trustees.

CJC organizers are preparing for future protests through reading groups — which in the past have entailed 70 to 100 pages of reading each week and Zoom book discussions.

More than a dozen activists participated in CJC reading groups this past summer — and called the initiative a success.

“It has been a really good way to bring people in in the past,” Vitek said. “You can’t just organize without a background of knowledge. It is important to have a clear intention behind what you are organizing, and reading groups can help you ground yourself.”

CJC organizer Hannah Brodsky ’22 is helping plan the group’s upcoming reading groups, although the book list has yet to be determined.

Potential book topics include the history of social movements in the 1960s, the Dakota Access pipeline and the contribution of indigenous people to the climate movement.

But Brodsky worries that some of the information will be lost in digital communication, compared to in-person meetings.

“Meeting in person, it is easier to communicate with people and read their body language,” Brodsky said. “When there are 10 people on a Skype call, it is harder to read people and understand their feelings.”

Still, Brodsky said she is looking forward to hearing new perspectives on activism from these reading groups.

Despite the urgency of confronting the novel coronavirus, many activists still see fighting climate change as a key priority.

“If it’s not a pandemic wiping us out,” said CJC member Thea Kozakis grad, “it will be climate change.”