Who’s winning the online battle for climate activism?

Who’s winning the online battle for climate activism?

Earth Day vs Extinction Rebellion vs #FridaysforFuture

Susi Weaser

Apr 15, 2020



min read

Life has moved online - we’re all coming up with ever more resourceful ways of replicating the IRL experience into something more lockdown-friendly.

(Anyone else finding they’ve done more pub quizzes in the past three weeks than in the rest of their life combined?!)

The online move is even true of climate activism. 2019 marked an explosion of awareness, thanks to the likes of Extinction Rebellion effectively shutting down parts of cities, and Greta Thunberg drawing the very high profile wrath of Donald Trump, while also being named Time’s Person of the Year.

Keen not to lose momentum, climate activists around the world have moved online in reaction to coronavirus.  

But is this an area that those growing up with the internet are inherently more at ease with? Or can a climate-aware history be translated digitally?  

Earth Day 2020

The first Earth Day was in 1970, aiming to channel the anti-war movement energy, repurposing it to protest against air and water pollution. Today, in a society that is increasingly distrustful of big business, it can be perceived as outdated - an opportunity for big brands to send out a press release about how they are ‘turning off the lights for Earth Day’, while keeping them blazing the remaining 364 days of the year.

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and the aim is to make the campaign “digital-first” - although even this term feels outdated and courtesy of a marketing department, rather than anything said by a grassroots activist.

There are of course hashtags (#EarthDay2020 and #EARTHRISE), which people can use to add their voice to the thunderclap of social media posts. The website is full of ideas about how to contribute, from virtual protests to window sign art projects to teach-ins. The latter have been happening for Earth Day since the very beginning, but this year a digital toolkit full of teaching resources might be just the thing for parents faced with another week of homeschooling...

If anything, the fact that every activity is happening online makes it difficult to find one decisive action to take - while this year’s theme is climate change, as part of that you can focus on food and agriculture, voting and democracy, or insects and air quality, to name but three. People are encouraged to share and invite people to their own activities, so there’s an almost overwhelming amount of content for anyone looking to get involved.

We say: The Earth Day website has a lot - a lot - about the history of Earth Day. While that’s not an issue in and of itself, it does encapsulate a point of view that can feel a little stale in today’s world. The lack of central action makes it hard to know how best to support the endeavour.

Extinction Rebellion

If Earth Day is the grande dame of climate activism, Extinction Rebellion is the plucky young upstart here to cause trouble. XR, as they’re known, believes in non-violent direct action and civil disobedience.

It probably won’t surprise you that a movement populated in a large part by Millennials and Gen Zers has been quick off the mark to react to this new coronavirus reality, and they’re keen to encourage activism that can be done in self-isolation.  In their own words:

“This calls for an evolution – not a shelving – of our rebellion. This is a time to remember what we are rebelling for – a thriving and just world of regenerative cultures that can weather crises, foster cooperation and look after each other on a global scale.”


In short, it feels like Extinction Rebellion were prepared for this all along, and in fact, see the pandemic intersecting with their very raison d’etre. Their website makes clear that rebuilding the world post-coronavirus is an opportunity to put climate change to the forefront.

They’ve gone one further, and launched a handbook in direct response to climate action in the face of coronavirus, full of ideas for individual and community protests and an online events programme, as well as wellbeing tips and support options.

We say: XR’s civil disobedience is difficult to translate online, particularly their tactic of mass arrest to create awareness. Parts of their digital activism feels very current, in particular the focus on mental health during the pandemic crisis, but again, a lack of a definitive action to take makes it difficult to hit the mainstream.

Fridays for Future

#FridaysForFuture began in August 2018, when Swedish student Greta Thunburg protested outside Swedish Parliament every Friday for three weeks, sitting and studying her school textbooks, while saying she felt there would be no future for her to prepare for. From 8th September that year, she has been striking every Friday against a lack of government action regarding climate change, and thousands of people around the world have joined her.

Using the hashtags #FridaysForFuture and #Climatestrike, the movement has always been digital, bringing together people (mainly students) from across the world in solidarity. But on 11th March this year, Thunberg formalised this, encouraging everyone to engage in a digital strike, posting photos every Friday.

More recently, she launched Talks for Future, a series of videos from high profile climate activists posted each Friday. The first included Naomi Klein, author of On Fire: The Burning Case for a New Green Deal, as well as Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, climate change and health leader for the World Health Organization (WHO).

We say: Unlike Earth Day or XR, FridaysforFuture has the advantage of asking for just one action - protest - on one day a week. It’s this kind of digital activism that has resulted in 749,069 #FridaysforFuture posts on Instagram - and counting. Having a figurehead in Greta Thunberg also undoubtedly helps the movement, and draws high profile names to any activity she’s involved in.

But perhaps it’s not about who is winning the digital battle, but about what kind of activism most appeals to you. Whether you’re trying to teach your kids about climate change, looking for like-minded community to engage with or want to add your voice to a high profile movement, this new online-only reality makes all of this accessible in a way it hasn’t been before.  An unlikely silver lining to this strange, strange time we're living in.

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