What it means to be a climate activist during the Covid-19 pandemic
Lockdown. People can only leave their homes for emergencies. Large events are prohibited. The immense momentum of the 2019 Fridays for Future movement seems to be put on hold. How can climate activists continue their work in times where practices such as protests and occupying buildings are not possible? To get a better insight into what it means to be a climate activist during the Covid-19 pandemic, I interviewed the 22 year-old activists Charlotte Lenhard from KAN Maastricht and Bianca Ercole from Maastricht for Climate. Both became active in the climate movement over two years ago, before the first Covid-19 cases reached the Netherlands.
Charlotte Lenhard is a third-year BA European Studies student from Germany who joined the climate movement because she felt compelled to do her own part in pushing politics to climate action, especially in relation to environmental justice. After joining Maastricht for Climate in early 2020, engagement in different climate-related roles and initiatives within Maastricht followed. This included being Vice-Chair in the FASoS Faculty Council and coordinator of the Sustainability Platform at that same faculty. Currently, Charlotte is a member of the Research and Education Committee in the University Council representing the KAN Party, which seeks to convey the goals of the Klimaat Actie Netwerk (KAN) to the university. KAN is a coalition of the many student-led organisations at whose core stands the goal to “bring Climate Justice to Maastricht University and the Maastricht Community”, such as Maastricht for Climate, Precious Plastic Maastricht, Foodsharing, and others.
Bianca Ercole, an Italian who is currently doing her Master in Globalization and Development Studies, joined Maastricht for Climate (M4C) in 2019 after becoming increasingly aware of the climate crisis. She embraced the variety of opportunities that Maastricht offers in terms of sustainability-focused initiatives and decided to join M4C’s protest team. Currently, Bianca works as the organisation’s secretary.
As you can imagine, climate activists’ work looked very different in 2019 compared to 2020 or 2021. While the widely influential Fridays for Future movement started in 2018 already, it was in 2019 that it really grew in numbers and recognition. On Global Climate Strike days, such as the 15th March 2019, millions of people across the world protested together for a more sustainable future. Maastricht also saw a high number of people participating in climate protests during that year. As Bianca estimates, “there were like 2000 people on the streets, it was insane.” The activist also recalls an awareness-raising Human Chain action that M4C did on Black Friday 2019 in Maastricht’s shopping streets. As I speak with Bianca, I notice how happy she looks when she thinks back to the actions that she helped organise in 2019. With increased media attention and public awareness on environmental issues and the Fridays for Future movement, Bianca says that it was “a whole moment in time which was good and favourable for organisations that were sustainable”. In fact, 2019 represents the year where many of Maastricht’s climate organisations came into existence and connected with each other.
New forms of activism
Once the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, a new reality was created for activists. I asked Charlotte what kind of changes she witnessed after the pandemic reached the Netherlands. Having joined M4C in January 2020 and the KAN Party in February 2020, the activist had only been part of Maastricht’s climate movement for several weeks before lockdowns all across Europe were announced in March 2020. “Suddenly everything shut down”, Charlotte tells me, “All of the social aspects of these organisations which I really appreciated before – that was just cut out completely.” Before the pandemic, her climate activism was shaped by participating in social gatherings and attending regular meetings with fellow activists. And let’s not forget the pleasure of some casual hanging out time before and after meetings. When thinking about the early stages of the pandemic, Charlotte says: “I remember just mostly the uncertainty about how my life would look but also about how my activism would look, because I had no experience with online campaigning”.
Online protesting was something that Bianca experienced pretty soon as part of M4C. Her organisation was originally planning a big in-person strike in March or April 2020. “Once we understood that it wasn’t possible for us to make that protest happen, we decided to do an online protest”, Bianca tells me. The organisation opted for projecting pictures of the climate activists holding a banner on the City Hall building on the Markt square. “It was really cool – the way we decided not to stop when we saw the Covid crisis.” But the new circumstances that came with the pandemic also allowed Maastricht’s climate organisations to have more time to develop a strategy on how to adapt to the situation. The organisations eventually started to do more online awareness-raising in the form of social media campaigning or recorded lectures. One specific project in this context was the “Global Citizenship Education Initiative'', a series of educational activities featuring experts with around 300 participants that Charlotte helped to coordinate.
Yet, while these online activities allowed people to continue discussing environmental issues, Charlotte emphasises that these interactions were of course not the same as before the pandemic. Compared to thousands of people marching in the streets in 2019, Bianca remarks that online actions did not have the same turn-out in numbers anymore. When talking about a webinar series that M4C organised in the first half of 2021, she explains that, while Zoom fatigue was on the rise, the number of participants slowly decreased. However, Bianca highlights that people were nevertheless still interested in the climate topic, which became clear for instance with the high number of participants in the “March on Wheels” cycling action in September 2020 or in the Human Chain action across the Hoge Brug in June 2021. By making sure that the Covid restrictions applicable at the time were being respected, the climate movement was able to continue organising some smaller in-person actions as well.
Coping with loneliness and eco-anxiety
One of the biggest challenges that both Bianca and Charlotte faced in these times was figuring out how to keep up the motivation. The Covid restrictions forced everyone to stay home and spend a lot of time in front of their own laptop. “All of a sudden activism had just gotten really lonely”, Charlotte states. In a time where social distancing and lockdowns are the norm, it was challenging to uphold the feeling of community that these organisations saw before the pandemic. Maastricht’s climate activists therefore decided to organise online socials. However, as Charlotte explains, sometimes “it was just insanely draining to – again – sit in front of a laptop”. Something that helped Charlotte with these challenges was talking with fellow activists about her feelings and struggles. Working on tasks together as opposed to doing it alone was also very valuable during that time.
Furthermore, eco-anxiety was common among climate activists, as Bianca reveals. She traces this strong fear of ecological disaster back to the increased amount of news that many people consumed about the different crises that the world witnessed at the time. “It was tough to process all these things that are happening”, Bianca admits. “But if you let yourself be taken away by this anxiety and hopelessness, you kind of let the other side win”. For Bianca, the anxiety she experienced ultimately became her source of energy to push forward and continue fighting for climate justice. As she puts it, “the way we are trying to fight this eco-anxiety is by acting”.
What we learned from the pandemic (or didn’t)
Besides the loneliness and eco-anxiety that Bianca and Charlotte struggled with, I notice a feeling of frustration or disappointment that they express when talking about the lack of action towards the climate crisis. For both activists, there is a clear connection between the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Charlotte points out that zoonotic diseases such as SARS-CoV emerge from a mistreatment of the environment. “I really feel like it was misunderstood how essential the whole environmental movement is to also preventing situations like the Covid pandemic”, she says. Charlotte especially regrets that people have not paid more attention to the concept of climate justice in this regard: “Again, the most vulnerable people have been affected disproportionately.” For Bianca, it was very much a question of “why are people not connecting the dots?”
Particularly when looking at the media coverage during the pandemic, one got the feeling that the climate crisis was overshadowed by other topics. “You see how unfair things are”, Bianca tells me, “if rich countries are affected by something, that is all that we are going to talk about and we are not going to care about the climate refugees and other things that are happening around the world”. The IPCC report that was published during the pandemic was one of the things that did not receive as coverage as one would expect, considering the grim picture the report paints for the future if the necessary climate action continues to be neglected. Bianca explains that her organisation tried its best to keep raising awareness about climate-related issues during the pandemic, for instance through webinars and social media posts. “But then the media has so much more power, sadly”, Bianca adds. “But also there, for example, it was hard to get covered within this city” when her organisation was doing actions. This was challenging for Maastricht’s climate movement. Nevertheless, I realise that both activists also understand that “generally, people had other worries”, as Charlotte puts it.
Besides their wishes for the media, Bianca and Charlotte would have wished for more political action and support regarding their demands for a more sustainable future. Maybe you remember the viral pictures of dolphins swimming in the beautiful canals of Venice. Orr reports of cities where air pollution has strongly decreased while human activity was temporarily put on hold. Bianca shares with me that it was both beautiful to see this slowing down of the world, but also disturbing: “We have been protesting for years. The movement, even before I joined, has been demanding to stop business as usual, to stop consumption like that and the government was always like ‘we cannot do it, we can’t’. And there you see that it was actually possible.”
From Bianca’s point of view, this situation where businesses were decreasing or stopping their activities, represented “a pivotal point to actually change”. Charlotte addresses the importance of coupling Covid relief with environmental goals. She criticises for instance the proposal of the German CDU party of “dropping environmental targets because of wanting to focus on economic growth in Germany”. According to Charlotte, this is the wrong approach. As I interview these two activists, I understand that they would have wished for stronger political support during the pandemic in regard to environmental targets. “I don’t properly think that politicians have learned. I think they are seeing that there is a demand”, Bianca argues. But when thinking about COP26 and the Glasgow Agreement, she asks herself “are they really acting, are we really going to achieve our goals?” Bianca does not seem too optimistic about it and stresses that “much more is needed”. On a more local level, she hopes that Maastricht’s new municipality council, formed after the recent elections in March, will make more efforts to effectively respond to the demands developed by Maastricht’s climate movement. The fact that M4C was invited to the council meeting during the local government formation is already a step forward, according to Bianca.
On a more positive note…
While Bianca and Charlotte have experienced many challenges as young climate activists during the last two years, not everything was bad. “I was very proud of my organisation”, Bianca tells me, smiling, “the way we kept going, the way we became creative.” Certainly, the climate movement had to be very inventive to adapt to the new situation. I ask what it means for her to be an activist during a pandemic. “Stressful” is the immediate response. She laughs. But “creative“ and “empowering” soon follow. Bianca explains her choice of words: “In a time where I was stuck in my room and I couldn’t do anything, I was still doing something.”
She tells me that the pandemic allowed Maastricht’s activist community to create more links with other organisations and stakeholders not only on a local, but also on a national and international scale. Bianca points out the collaborative efforts with the university which led to the creation of the Sustainability Hub, a building used for educational activities related to sustainability. “The university has helped a lot there. I think even the university has a lot to learn, but it's good to learn things together and to start working together on these things”. The Sustainability Hub is also where the Sustainability Week will take place in the upcoming days.
What I notice while interviewing both activists is that they are visibly happy that people still kept fighting for a better future, despite the many hurdles caused by the pandemic. “That also gives me hope for the future”, Charlotte says, “because if under these circumstances the climate movement was able to persevere, I really think that it will do the same in the future as well.” With the enormous weight that the pandemic had on activists, she highly appreciates that people in the activist community started doing more mental health check-ins with each other. Now that Covid restrictions seem to belong to a distant past, at least in the Netherlands, it also becomes easier for the activist community to continue their fight for a more sustainable future. Charlotte describes it like this: “It feels like communities and organisations are kind of reviving right now.” She laughs. “I think there are more positive sides to that than to what was going on during the Covid pandemic.”
Finally, I ask both Bianca and Charlotte what their message would be to the public. Charlotte confidently voices her thoughts: “I really want people to not forget that it’s not humans and nature, but that by not treating our environment well, we are not treating ourselves well. And we saw it very literally with Covid.” Charlotte emphasises that we should not stop with seeing the connections, but “to also act upon that. To behave in a way that allows the environment to be healthy. To make personal priorities and political decisions in a way that aligns with planetary boundaries.” Bianca takes a similar stance: “People should not stop using their voices. Get out there, keep pushing. Especially to young people – this is our future and we need to fight for it.”