Putting climate activism back on track: 'I hope we can go back to the streets'

School strike for climate in Brisbane, Australia, 15 March 2019. (Keystone/Dan Peled)

After a year disrupted by Covid-19, two climate activists from Ghana and Brazil explain how they plan to raise awareness for the climate emergency this year.

2020 was supposed to be a blockbuster year for climate action. But then Covid-19 happened, forcing activists to abandon one of their most powerful tools for raising awareness: public demonstrations.

All the momentum gathered from the Fridays for Future (FFF) global strike movement was brought to a sudden halt by restrictions and lockdowns. And whilst attention was mostly focused on Covid-19, the climate crisis continued to play out at the same time, with 2020 ending up as one of the hottest years on record.

Less than a year since the beginning of the pandemic and a few months ahead of the UN climate change conference, Cop26, to be held in Glasgow in November, the youth movement is preparing for another year filled with uncertainty.

Back to work. Adriani Maffioletti is an indigenous activist from Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Preparations for the global strike on 19 March  are on their way, she says over the phone. The date was announced last week by the FFF global movement. “I really hope that we can go to the streets and have a big impact,” she says.

Activists are planning for different scenarios such as requiring participants to wear masks, practising social distancing and, the most dreaded one, having to settle for an online event, just like last time.

Maffioletti says that this year she will focus on educating people in her state about climate change, hoping that this will motivate them to take individual action and change their habits such as eating meat. "We cannot wait for our government to take action," says the young activist, who expresses her frustration with President Jair Bolsonaro's lack of response to the climate crisis and to the pandemic.

Kassim Gawusu-Toure, executive coordinator for the African Youth Initiative for Climate Change (AYICC), is also counting on things somewhat returning to normal. The 33 year-old activist from Ghana also hopes that other actions can resume:

“Lockdowns affected our activities on the ground. This year, we want to encourage our members to go back to those activities, planting trees, taking care of the political situation, and to instill hope and enthusiasm again in them.”

As Covid-19 continues to hit the continent hard, Gawusu-Toure knows that on top of this, the youth movement will also have to address the consequences of the health crisis. “We want to work to build resilience beyond Covid, so that we can learn to bounce back better,” he says.

A long awaited summit. For both the activists, this year will be about building momentum in the run-up to Cop26. It will be a chance for the youth movement to raise their concerns about the way political leaders are dealing with the climate emergency and maybe even blast them like Greta Thunberg did in September 2019 in New York with her “how dare you” speech at the Climate Action Summit. But while previous summits saw thousands of demonstrators marching down the streets, Cop26 might cause disappointment.

As the summit was postponed last year, the AYICC could not present its report about Africa’s youth perspective on how the climate crisis should be tackled. For the time being, the organisation has decided to move the conferences and workshops they had prepared to this year at the latest, hoping that by October, they can be held face-to-face.

Whichever form it takes, Gawusu-Toure’s priority is for the African youth to have a space in these international negotiations. But like every year, he suspects that some of the same challenges will arise.

“Our participation in international events as an African youth, has always been limited,” he explains. Travel visas and paperwork requiring bank statements indicating that the person has enough revenue, as well as travel expenses are some of the barriers that often prevent young activists from participating in events outside of Africa, he adds.

Despite all the holdbacks and challenges, Gawusu-Toure remains in high spirits:

“Covid has shown us that global solidarity is possible.  So I am hopeful that the same lessons that have been learnt from this can be brought into the climate space as well.”

Lessons learnt. Going virtual for a year also came with some wisdom for both activists. For Maffioletti, it was the beginning of her journey as a climate activist:

“For me, 2020 was the year of information. I didn't have the internet before, so it was all new for me. I came to know about the global strike movement through social media and decided to join Fridays for Future Brazil. It was amazing. I could talk to activists all the way in the Philippines. I could see others' realities and not only my own.”

At 18 years old, she now coordinates a local movement called Aldeias pelo clima — or communities for climate. They are reaching out to local political leaders who are starting to listen to their demands for climate action, she says.

Like her, many other climate activists were able to use social media to carry on campaigning despite restrictions. However, with protests, conferences, and other activities forced to cancel, many who do not have access to the internet were left out.

“In Africa, we still have a lot of challenges when it comes to online engagement. There are communities that do not have access to electricity or the internet because it is quite costly. So our youth, especially the rural youth, could not be part of our online activities,” says Gawusu-Toure. This did bring some insight into how to leverage online tools for climate action, he notes.

With 2021 showing no signs of being any different than the past year, these lessons might come in handy for the next cohort of young climate activists.