Saturday, March 06, 2010

Climate Change 2.0

Communication matters. Politicians have known this for years, but it often seems as though scientists and activists missed that memo. These groups know why a topic matters to them, but they cannot convey the significance to the public in a way that gets through the daily onslaught of information. Scientists are especially guilty when they limit their distribution of information to academic journals and conferences. These venues are hardly perused by the general public, and so useful information gets lost in the labyrinth of academia. Activists similarly struggle to communicate, although not for lack of effort. In a world where new causes seem to materialize every day, how can a climate activist stay relevant? In the past the strategy has involved some groups lobbying for environmental legislation, and others trying to get people interested in preserving nature, from polar bears to wetlands.

Without minimizing the importance of conservation and legislation, it seems as though the message of the climate change movement often gets muddled. It often fails to use communication strategies that are clear and reach large numbers of people. In particular, the climate movement should be making a special effort to reach out to the millennial generation, who will be most affected by the effects of climate change during their lifetimes. The distinguishing communication venue for millennials is the Internet-- specifically, social networks. As the millennial generation becomes more and more politically active, the climate movement will benefit greatly from finding ways to engage them with their most-utilized communication methods.

Climate Change 2.0: Recent Uses of New Media

Activists have long attempted to determine effective ways to reach a broader public with their message about global warming. Indeed, an organization called Resource Innovations “initiated a project designed to identify the most effective means to communicate with local populations about climate change.” This study yielded a number of recommendations about how best to communicate climate change, including the types of messengers that should be used to convey the information-- those with a range of expertise on a variety of subject areas from religious to environmental to business. Focus groups indicated that a broader range of experts educating the public on climate change would improve the credibility of the movement. In light of this study, it is reasonable to assume that among younger audiences, the credibility of the climate change movement would also be improved by increased activity on social media outlets.

Some organizations and individuals have already begun to increase their use of social media regarding climate change issues. The Copenhagen conference in particular drove groups to take up an active place on social networks, although some Web 2.0 aficionados found the website of the conference itself to be deficient in its use of new media. One of the most prominent to do so was not an environmental group, but the Associated Press and its affiliates covering the conference. Due to the conference's significance, the AP created a Facebook page and Twitter account to “provide a unique outlet for Internet users to discuss climate change with some of the world's most experienced journalists covering the conference,” according to a press release put out by the company. Other prominent individuals also started using social media in advance of the conference, such as John Prescott, the former British Transport Secretary and current Rapporteur on Climate Change to the Council of Europe who used Twitter and his blog to gauge and try to sway public opinion in England about climate change in advance of the summit.

The movement rallied the blogosphere and Web 2.0 aficionados around the climate summit in Copenhagen, publicizing the use of their own videos and other sources on individual Twitter feeds and blogs, effectively spreading the word about their organization. and its partners joined together in a Blog Action Day before Copenhagen, calling for the preservation of the Earth's atmosphere at no higher than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Before the Blog Action Day, also featured six of the “hottest” videos on climate change, highlighting the roles that social media can play in raising awareness and calling for action.

Beyond the climate conference, some businesses have also been actively commenting on climate change issues. One of the most noteworthy is Shell Oil, which allowed its climate change adviser, David Hone, to start and maintain a blog, on which he records his thoughts and experiences looking into climate change-related issues. The idea behind the blog was to provide a “serious venue for conversation about an issue that is very important to all of us” and to do so in a way that is accessible to people beyond environmentalists and policy makers.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits that social media has already provided is in areas that are indirectly related to climate change-- namely, in providing information after natural disasters. The earthquake in Haiti is perhaps the best current example of how Twitter can be useful, although in this particular instance the quake is not related to climate change. After the earthquake, news outlets such as CNN reported people going to Twitter for information in record numbers, as disaster agencies posted updates and celebrities used their feeds to call for donations to charities. Similar situations have occurred in the past and will likely occur again in the future in instances where climate change is more directly tied to a disaster. A prime example is the cyclone that occurred in Bangladesh in December 2007. BBC World Service had spent several years building up a site showcasing the effects that climate change had already had on that area, and when the cyclone arrived, Twitter and blog updates provided personal accounts from the ground, even when the mainstream media switched its focus.

Reaching the Millennials: Why Social Media Matters

The millennials are the generation that is most likely to be heavily impacted by climate change. Right now, social media venues are the main outlet for young people looking to share their opinions with a broader audience, and with or without the support of the mainstream climate movement, they are speaking out on the issue. Jesse Strauss, a student and blogger on, wrote about the urgency with which we need to address climate change:
Every once in a while, a generation gets a necessary call to act and sacrifice. The last time this happened, a nation mobilized to defeat the armies of fascism. The most powerful force on Earth is a mobilized democracy calling for action, and that is what we need to be. Right now, we have been granted a very small and rare window to change our ways to save this planet for our children. A new decade means a clean slate. [...] When 2020 rolls around, let’s be able to say truthfully we left the decade with the Earth better than we found it.
The Pew Research Center announced in its New Media Index just before the Copenhagen conference that global warming had been the primary hot topic discussed on blogs and other social media networks, with more than half of the news links in blogs relating to the issue. Often the blogs have been posted by those who doubt the reality of global warming, but during the weeks before Copenhagen, the debate was not one-sided. Rather, “much of the added fuel [to the debate] came from climate change believers who engaged in the debate that had been dominated by skeptics.”

Bloggers like Jesse Strauss and the data from the New Media Index are together reflections of the evolving reality: that connecting teens to movements like the fight against climate change will increasingly require engagement with online social media as much as (or more than) traditional media. The Pew Research Institute has been active in recent years studying the interaction between the millennial generation and the Internet, and the results have been striking. A study published in December 2007 learned that about 93% of teens use the Internet, and that 64% of these online teens have either contributed to or written a blog, maintained a personal website, shared their own artistic creations online, and included content that they found online in their own work-- and this did not even include those who were active on Facebook or another social networking site.

Beyond the teenagers, however, are the older members of the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000). These are mostly no longer teenagers, but they are equally “plugged in” to the technology that many consider to be a hallmark of the generation. According to a Pew Research Center study published in February 2010, approximately 75% of millennials have at least one social networking profile (compared with 50% of Gen-Xers and 30% of baby boomers). These are numbers that have jumped significantly within the last ten years for all adults, but most strikingly for the millennials. Between 2005 and 2006, the percentage of young people using social networking sites jumped from 7% to 51%, a number that subsequently increased and stabilized at 75% in 2008.

In addition to the data about the technological engagement of millennials, the Pew data indicated a trend toward more liberal political opinions. More than half of the millennials surveyed said that they thought the government should do more to help people, compared to 42% who thought that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. However, the study notes that like other generations when they were younger, millennials do not typically have high levels of political engagement. They did make a substantial difference in the election of Barack Obama (a campaign that stood out for its use of social media) in 2008, but the number of millennials voting sank significantly in the gubernatorial elections of 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia.

The Pew Center report says, “Even though Millennials made extensive use of social media in the 2008 campaign, it is too early to judge the long-term impact of these technologies on their level of engagement.” This is undoubtedly true. However, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that the ability of the Obama campaign to connect with younger voters using familiar technology (social networking) might be correlated to their ability to get out the youth vote. Not only did the Obama campaign convey a message that millennials could relate to, they used a relevant medium to millennials.

Climate change movements that seek to stay relevant with today's technology-savvy generation can learn from the lessons of the Obama campaign in 2008, as well as from organizations that mobilized around the Copenhagen conference. Social media-- from blogs to videos to Twitter-- can be an effective tool for spreading information and especially engaging with younger potential activists. Many millennials know that global climate change will be manifesting its consequences during their lifetimes, and they are eager to step up and take action to reduce the impact. They are simply waiting for leadership that meets them on familiar ground and connects with them.

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