In February, before the economic house of cards began to tumble down amid the coronavirus pandemic, a few dozen young people gathered in Santa Rosa to plan a 20,000-member march on April 22.
Members of the Sunrise Movement’s Sonoma County hub, one of dozens of local Sunrise groups spread around the country, helped to organize several marches in the past year, including one event which drew about 2,000 people to downtown Santa Rosa. But, Sunrise members indicated the next event would be different.
Not only would the march take place on Earth Day’s 50th anniversary—April 22, 2020—the environmental movement needed to be reinvigorated.
Throughout 2019, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg toured the world, attempting to shame policymakers into taking action on climate change. Some elected officials in the United States even signaled support for a Green New Deal, a policy proposal intended to combat economic and environmental issues at the same time. But, by April 2020, the hope for immediate action through the electoral system seemed to be dashed.
On April 8, Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate endorsed by the national Sunrise Movement, suspended his campaign. He soon endorsed Joe Biden.
In recent weeks, while cities and states across the country ordered residents to stay home due to the coronavirus, Sunrise worked to take its plans for a mass mobilization online.
Instead of organizing a traditional march, the group has now collaborated with other groups to organize a series of online events scheduled between Wednesday, April 22, and Friday, April 24. Other organizations are also hosting online events around the Bay Area throughout the week.
But, despite having livestream capability, no one in the Sunrise Sonoma group seems to expect 20,000 people to show up to their online events this week.
That’s unfortunate for Sunrise and its sympathizers, but fitting for an activist movement competing for attention in a world plagued by a pandemic and related economic fallout.
Fifty Years Ago
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, an estimated 20 million people—about 10 percent of the United States’ population—participated in events across the country.
Following that event, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed additional environmental protections, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
While never perfect, the EPA and the new regulations provided environmentalists and marginalized communities tools to push back against corporate negligence and repeat polluters.
But ever since, environmentalists have fought to protect the regulatory agencies they won in the 1970s, as organizations that oppose those regulations gain strength and public support of the environmental movement wanes.
In an interview with the Earth Day Network, a group organizing online Earth Day events, Denis Hayes, who organized the original Earth Day as a 25-year-old graduate student, commented on what seems to be a pendulum-like swing in the American environmental movement.
“The 1970s was a very pro-environment decade, when we were almost unstoppable for 10 years,” Hayes said. “That led into the 1980s and people whose names are synonymous with anti-environmental zealotry.”
While Hayes hastened to add that the pendulum swing in favor of the environmental movement is not inevitable, the renewed conversation around the urgency of climate change over the past year may give environmentalists hope that another shift in public sentiment is underway.
Meanwhile, despite an increase in media coverage of the unfolding dangers of global warming, President Donald Trump’s administration continues to gut regulatory agencies, including the EPA. In late March, the administration announced further roll backs of EPA regulations as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
Even if they do elect an environmentally-friendly president, the modern environmental movement faces fierce odds. Because of the global nature of climate change, any solutions will need to be implemented on a global scale, Hayes notes.
That’s something even the first Earth Day didn’t accomplish.
“If there is a lesson, it’s this: That first Earth Day was a very big tent with a broad set of values that underpinned it,” Hayes says. “The tent has become narrower in ensuing decades, and while remaining firm in our values and goals and objectives, we need to be more welcoming.”
Members of the Sonoma County Sunrise group seem to agree with that assessment. Five members of the group interviewed this week mentioned that part of the appeal of the group is its support of proposals that aim to tackle economic, social and environmental problems at the same time.
Ema Govea, a 16-year-old Sunrise member, says she became interested in social justice issues when she was 10. When she began researching climate change she was struck by how it intersects with so many other worldwide issues.
“The climate crisis affects every single one of these struggles and it makes every single problem worse,” Govea says.
To Paulina Lopez, a 25-year-old Sunrise member who hopes to involve more Latino people in climate change activism in Sonoma County, climate justice includes immigration rights and housing rights, not just advocating for lower emissions.
“Some of the immigrants (coming to this country) are trying to escape the climate crisis,” Lopez says.
The intuition that many problems in our globalized world are connected seems to be borne out in the mind-numbing number of apocalyptic headlines emerging from the coronavirus pandemic. In short, the pandemic has highlighted and worsened pre-existing problems.
As of April 11, 20 million American workers had lost their jobs, and weekly unemployment claims had overtaken any rates seen in the first 50 weeks of the 2008-2009 recession, according to the Tax Policy Center. On April 9, the National Multifamily Housing Council reported that only 69 percent of renters had paid rent by April 5. In the period in April 2019, 82 percent of tenants had paid their rent.
Many of these problems may be worsened by other trends. For instance, labor analysts at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, predict that labor automation will increase at a faster pace during the coming economic depression as employers seek to lower labor costs.
It’s too soon to tell if the federal economic stimulus efforts will be enough to save workers, small businesses and the overall economy. But, so far, things don’t look good.
So, how does all of this poll?
According to a February report by Pew Research, 85 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans said that “protecting the environment” should be a priority for the president and Congress.
In 2008, only 65 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans gave a similar answer.
That said, views on the issue could be shifting along age lines. A separate Pew poll found an increasing difference in opinion on climate change between Republicans based on age. About half of millennial Republicans, those born between 1980 and 1994, said the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, compared to only 31 percent of Republicans born before 1964.
It is likely that only a relatively small percentage of the overall population will ever be passionately involved in any given issue. Indeed, a Gallup poll conducted in February found that only 18 percent of respondents had attended a meeting concerning the environment in the past year. In 2000, 20 percent of respondents answered the same way.
In January 2019, Varshini Prakash, Sunrise’s executive director, told Vox, an online news site, that the group aims to mobilize a relatively small group of people—about 3.5 percent of the total population—to demand immediate change.
If Sunrise and its environmental allies are able to mobilize the same number of people who participated in the original Earth Day, that amount of turnout might be possible—though probably not this Earth Day.
For Govea, the 16-year-old Sunrise member, the hectic early days of the coronavirus pandemic highlight a stark choice: Either we move forward and create a new world, or we go back to the way things were and continue to pollute the environment.
“What is expected to happen is that we will just keep drilling to get the economy back on its feet,” Govea says. “We’re just going to drill more and extract more fossil fuels and go right back up to normal. But we also have the opportunity to really think about what it is about ‘normal’ that we want to keep, and what it is that we don’t want to keep.”
“What about normal do we want?” Govea asks. “Because this could be a great opportunity for change.”