Guest blog: How to raise climate awareness through social networks

By Matt Owens

Rome wasn’t built in a day. In fact, as the mythology goes, the founders, led by Romulus were mostly male and had no way of continuing their society. Their neighboring tribe however, the Sabines, had plenty of young women. But they refused to let them intermarry with Romulus’ crew. So naturally, Romulus and his men hatched a clever plan and abducted the young Sabine women. After promising full rights and honorable marriage, they agreed. Their fathers were upset however, and started a war. All this led to the intervention of the Sabine women and a truce was called, with half the Sabine tribe actually joining and moving into the new city-state of Rome.

Today, climate awareness is facing it’s own version of a ticking biological clock, much like early Romans were. If you want to raise awareness, you have to get other people thinking about climate change and engaging with the topic. As one of the few who are aware now, you can do this with most people through all types of social networks. In doing so, it’s important to keep in mind the perceptions and the metal realities of others. A fully integrated, holistic approach is best.  

Online is the easiest way to spread awareness. You can click the like or plus button to help get the info out to your friends and acquaintances. On it’s own however, that won’t work. In fact, if that’s all you do, it will probably backfire. As you continue to like or post material about climate change, people who don’t know or care enough about it will get turned off and tune out. Such a response has a tendency to cause the initiator to become despondent and push material even more frantically.

Either pushing harder or becoming despondent are each bad and often lead to most people pulling away. Only those with a close connection will grow concerned about you if you become despondent. Others will feel uncomfortable and extricate themselves from your company.
You can also cause your audience to become despondent themselves if you only share despondency-inducing material. There must be some practical action possible. Simply raising awareness of the problem is counter-productive, unless the people you’re sharing with are prepared to hear only bad news.

The solution to this problem is to know what you’re doing with social networks; or more likely, just proceed with caution. Social media rules notoriously keep changing, so it’s hard really know who sees what.

With the old-school method of sharing, you looked someone in the eyes and spoke, instinctively watching for many subtle responses that were highly context-dependent. Now, what response is there? Where does the context go?

Context is measured in both space and time, or more truthfully, something that combines the two, although not quite like the Einstein version.

What happens on social media is that either your item gets plused or liked, and maybe it gets a comment, or maybe several – but how often does someone take the time to write something? Do you know how long it takes to write something? I mean something that’s meaningful and communicates well and is longer than a few words. A “great!” or “this is important!” response is good however, if used appropriately with meaning and in the right context.

But if you get no response, how do you know if your audience even saw what you promoted? Or if they “liked” it or “plused” it, how do you know that they read anything about it, or what they liked about it? Even with the down-vote option, there isn’t much more info, and the context is usually missing. So there is really very little communicated there.

There’s also the chance that you’re annoying people without realizing it because you get so little feedback. A picture is worth a thousand words they say, and during a 1 minute conversation, you can get a thousand pictures of the person you’re talking to. You get them in real-time too, so you can adjust what you talk about and the direction of your conversation. All this in milliseconds.

Ideally, this results in a smooth exchange and both sides can stay happy. If you want to talk to the person about climate change, you can if they’re receptive, but if not, you’ll notice and change the flow. When you talk to someone about something they don’t want to hear about, they don’t listen and everyone’s time is wasted. The two of you are less likely to ever talk again unless you’re close friends, family, or coworkers.

So my advice is to take full advantage of the efficiencies of your real-person* social networks to share material about climate change. Proceed with caution, and watch for signs that the person or people you’re talking to are not willing to engage on the topic. You can’t force people to think a certain way. I know, the best scientists are working on it right now and one day soon there will be an app for it. But not yet.

*By real-person, I should say that is just a term. Actually, video-chat is nearly as good a medium for communication if you can see the full compliment of body language and facial expressions. Unfortunately, that isn’t available for most people with the current internet connections. This is a problem in the USA and a real inefficiency.

But you should also take advantage of your social media sources – but do it intelligently. Knowing the truth of what I’ve just said, you can keep that in mind and hopefully share things selectively and infrequently enough to not turn your connections off. If you do, then so be it, but you better keep making new connections!

On a practical note: a share, like, re-tweet, and so on really help good material rise in search rankings, and it does tend to increase the chance people in your circles or network will see that material too. So go for it, but choose wisely. And slow down if you’re clicking on something because the title sounds cool. Make informed decisions – you know, like 90% of everyone 90% of the time doesn’t do. Try something new.

Another practical note, if you want people to engage meaningfully with what you’ve shared, either face to face or over the internet, you’ve got to keep in mind what you look like from the other person’s perspective. Who are you talking to? What do they know? What do they care about? If you say something that’s too “truthful” will it traumatize them? This last one is a very serious concern with climate change. There aren’t any simple answers to that issue though, but if you see a way to communicate information without inflicting mental trauma, that would be the best choice. Also consider, what will they think about you? Will they think you’re a lunatic? If so, you probably should keep your mouth shut.

As for avoiding mental trauma, this is the last issue I’ll talk about here, and it’s important. First of all, only the most sheltered of us don’t know about death. We all understand at some level that any number of disasters could kill us, the people around us, or even the whole world. Life is that way, it’s obvious. Most people however, push this thought out of their operating perceptual assumptions for long periods of time, often until someone they know dies, or they hear about something on the news – like the Boston bombing.

Take the knowledge of this mental mechanics and size your audience up: are they like most people running on the assumption that death is a meaningless clause they didn’t bother to read about in the contract? If so, introduce the thought of death gently and do it in a way that’s not connected to climate change. Like I did at the beginning of this paragraph. That way you can desensitize your audience, so when you tell them something to the effect that climate change could kill them, their kids, or their grandkids, it won’t be as shocking. Or if you tell them that climate change might kill billions by starvation, it won’t be so shocking either. This approach to the most serious and personal aspect of climate change allows for a pragmatic consideration of options and leads to productive thinking that makes the future better. Or so we hope.

It’s also worth pointing out, that if you’re introducing climate change to an audience, leaving too much unsaid can create unwanted anxiety. Simply acknowledge that even if we control emissions, there might still be a sudden change in climate. But if we start to reduce emissions globally, and soon (within 10 years), then the chances of sudden changes that might lead to many deaths is much smaller than if we just keep emitting. If we keep going, the chances of mass human-losses in this century rapidly rise. This way, we can cut to the chase, and it puts things in perspective. We really need to get those emissions cut. Extinctions, ocean acidification, droughts, property loss, everything else is all important – but it needs context.

If you don’t introduce the concept in a gentle way, and just go in and say something shocking, the result will be much different. For example, if I begin a presentation on the issue with: “hello, climate change is so serious that your children may be forced to kill and eat you one day,” I would have a very different engagement with my audience. At best, I’d probably end up talking about what type of sword or handgun is best to keep, instead of talking about ways to treat the underlying illness: greenhouse gas emissions. At worst, I’d loose the audience immediately.

Be creative, be aware, and understand that you need to be effective. Ultimately, if we communicate well enough, we’ll get a mass movement going that will have the numbers to physically demand the change that’s required. With enough people, we’ll be able to make the change easily. The swipe of a few pens and the shuffle of a few papers will make it official, and new factories and companies will open shop, retrofitting our country and then the world for a carbon-free energy future. And once we’ve got that taken care of, we can start the next phase, which will be the actual removal of carbon from the air. Even with just a movement in the USA, effective communication will translate to a successful global movement. The same popular politics that we can use domestically can be used internationally. Any country that doesn’t like it can enjoy an international trade embargo. A few unabashed liars say that the rest of the world won’t act, so there’s no point in trying – but the truth is the opposite, China is already taking climate change way more seriously than the USA. Europe and Australia are both even further ahead. If we don’t get our act together, we might be the one’s under embargo.

This was original posted on Fairfax Climate Watch.

Matt Owens is the editor and lead author of Fairfax Climate Watch, you can engage with him on Google+.

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