Are We losing the War Over Climate Change Because of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber?

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If you wonder why we see so little action on climate change, don’t look to blame only the political and corporate usual suspects. It may well be that no one talks about it, at least not the people everyone follows on social media.

credit: Bernard Goldbach

On my twitter feed almost everyone talks about climate change. It gets me thinking sometimes that the whole world talks about climate change. This is probably not the case as my twitter feed reflects my interests and includes many people who are preoccupied with this issue. But forget about me for a second — what about the people that are most followed on twitter and populate the feeds of many of Twitter’s 326 million users — do they talk about climate change?

I started thinking about this question after the 1.5 for Victory event we had at the New School on Monday. In a panel I moderated with Jean Gardner, Jessica Corr, Davida Smith and Rodrigo Bautista we talked among other things about the idea of climate change as a culture war, where we fight to win people’s hearts, not just minds. As Daniel Goleman (as well as other scholars) pointed out a while ago: ”Facts alone aren’t enough. We need to find a more powerful way of framing them, and of speaking to people in a way which will activate the right set of emotions and get us moving.”

1.5C for Victory panel at the New School (12/3/2018)

So how do we do it?

One of the panelists (Rodrigo Bautista) mentioned the power of social media to drive change and the role it can play, especially with younger generations, in fighting climate change. I second that and believe that social media can help reframe the story of the fight over climate change as well as create emotional connections with people like no other tool we have in our arsenal.

The notion of social media as a cultural battlefield over climate change isn’t new. In his book “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change DebateAndrew Hoffman describes the role of social media in the dissemination of incorrect anti-climate information. Hoffman also suggests that social media plays a role in the process of tribalism:

Social media allow us to find information to support any position we seek to hold and find a community of people that will share those positions… Our choice of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social
 media networks will reinforce our cultural communities and therefore the information we receive and the values that we develop.”

I would like to suggest another role that social media can play in the climate wars — agent of normalization, helping normalize the fight over climate change and empowering young audiences to take action, personally and collectively to help meet the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

However, right now this seems to be more of a wishful thinking — one possible reason is that the most powerful people on social media don’t really talk about climate change. No conversation means no normalization and no action. I decided to check if this is indeed the case, focusing on twitter and some of the most popular people on this platform.

To do it, I used SnapBird that allows you to search for specific keywords on users’ timeline. I focused on twitter activity during the months of October and November 2018, which were pretty busy with climate related news, from a number of important climate reports (like the IPCC report) to extreme weather events (i.e. California wildfires) and climate demonstrations worldwide. I decided to look at three lists: 1) The most popular accounts on Twitter (based on this source), 2) The most popular athletes on Twitter (based on this source), and 3) VC/Tech/Startups leaders on Twitter — for this list I used different resources, looking at people with at least 100,000 followers and an ongoing activity on Twitter. While this list does not necessarily include the most popular VC/Tech/Startups accounts on twitter I believe it still provides a good reflection of this space. Last but not least, I chose to run the search using four keywords from a list of popular climate change hashtags on Twitter and Instragram: Climate, global warming, environment and carbon.

The rule was simple — I’m counting any tweet (including retweets) that was made during the months of October and November and includes one of these four keywords. Here are the results (you can see the Google sheet with the full results here):

Twitter’s most popular list includes mostly singers, as well as TV stars and personas, one soccer player, one company (YouTube) and one politician. None of them twitted about climate change during the months of October and November 2018. I have to admit I had two surprises in this list — first, I had no idea that Katy Perry is the most popular person on Twitter with almost 107 million followers. Second, the only person on this list I had expectations from is former President Barack Obama, who is undoubtedly a climate change champion, and yet even he didn’t have anything to tweet or share about climate change in the last couple of months. Also, interestingly Justine Bieber’s bio on his twitter account starts with “Let’s make the world better.” — I was wondering if this was indeed the case, how come winning over climate change is not on Bieber’s make the world better to-do list (I assume that if it was he would tweet about it from time to time).

Here I have to say I was quite surprised when I couldn’t find not even a single tweet! Apparently none of the most popular athletes on Twitter had anything to say or share about climate change during the months of October and November. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, who supports different social and humanitarian causes, not Lebron James whose foundation just funded a new public school in Ohio, and not Virat Kohli, the Indian international cricketer, who is also involved in philanthropic work through his foundation. All of them sere just silent about climate change, at least on twitter.

Finally I had some results! I started worrying that there’s something wrong with the tool I was using as the first two lists I was looking at resulted in zero climate change related tweets. But then came the third list of VC/Tech/Startup leaders, where I found no less than 31 tweets. Hallelujah! Most of the tweets came from Chris Sacca (22 tweets in total), followed by Elon Musk (4 tweets), Vinod Khosla (3 tweets) and Paul Graham (2 tweets). While I’m not one of Chris Sacca’s fans, I was very impressed to see the number of climate related tweets on his twitter feed. At the same time it is worth noting that even in Sacca’s case 22 tweets represent only a small fraction of his overall tweets — less than 2% in Oct-Nov 2018.

So what can we learn from these results? I believe they provide an indication on why we lose so far the culture war on climate change. I’m not talking in terms of the fight with those who debate climate science — although it may be difficult to see it in the U.S. this fight has already been won with almost 9 out of 10 people acknowledging human contribution to climate change according to a latest IKEA/GlobeScan study. What I’m referring to when I’m talking about the culture war is a war to normalize and prioritize the fight over climate change, placing it high on the agenda of every household, boardroom and government discussion. This is the war we’re losing so far.

The reason we lose it IMHO is that we don’t have the best warriors — the influencers who shape our culture on social media — on our side. With all the due respect to the scientists who educate us about the risks and impacts of climate change — when it comes to the fight over the hearts of people, especially younger generations, we need Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Cristiano Ronaldo and other mega-stars. We need them to help make climate action cool, sexy, fun, and compelling, even when it requires us to change our lifestyle or become politically active. These influencers have the power to change our perception and emotional responses to climate change issues because many people admire them and listen to what they have to say (remember Taylor Swift’s Instagram post about the midterm elections in Tennessee? While it didn’t help the Democratic candidates she supported, it inspired according to reports 65,000 people to register to vote).

What can these influencers say? It’s up to them. They can figure out what makes most sense for them, but in general any message that will help empower young people and/or put pressure on companies and governments to take bolder action is welcome. It’s also important to make it a regular part of their conversations on social media, not just a one-time thing they do to check this box.

In one of the more memorable moments of Mad Men Don Draper offers Peggy Olson the following lesson: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. To paraphrase Draper, if we don’t like the status quo of climate change inaction, we need to change course and focus on how to win over people’s hearts, not just minds. We need to have a better understanding that we’re fighting a culture war and demand the people who shape our culture to take on themselves the most important task of their life — becoming change agents that help us win over climate change.





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