Sociological Studies researchers make climate change social at major United Nations event

Image of the stage at CoP23In late 2017, Drs Warren Pearce and Suay Ozkula were invited to speak at the United Nations Climate Change conference, attended by international political leaders and activists, about how climate change is discussed on social media.

The world’s nations met in Bonn, Germany for the 23rd annual ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP23), a major ten-day conference with the ultimate aim of halting global warming, from November 6 to 17, 2017.

Throughout the two-week period of the conference, Research Associate Dr Suay Ozkula carried out ethnographic research to gauge the role that social media played at the conference, which saw 20,000 delegates attend across two huge sites.

Speaking on the final day of COP23, Suay and Warren were joined by Dr Sabine Niederer from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences to discuss the influence of social media on the public climate change debate. In an event in the European Union pavilion, the speakers presented preliminary findings from the project ‘Making Climate Social’, looking at events during 2017 as well as analysing social media activity during COP23 itself.

For example, the announcement made by Donald Trump on June 1, 2017 - stating that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement - resulted in the biggest spike in discussions about climate change recorded over the last five years on Twitter. A key set of contributors to this spike in climate change discussion were comedy writers who satirised Trump’s announcement, and on occasion these tweets achieved far greater visibility than leading politicians and journalists.

Warren said: “I think this tells us something fundamental about Twitter and why it’s popular, because it’s not just the usual suspects speaking out, saying what you would expect them to say in quite a ritualised fashion.

“Unlike some social media platforms, Twitter enables relatively unknown users to go viral; becoming very prominent through posting popular content. Most of these humorous tweets were, to some degree, pushback against Trump. There were also popular tweets, which mentioned climate change without mentioning Trump at all, suggesting a broader public interest in climate change.”

Warren added: “This suggests that Twitter offers a more varied way to experience what’s going on in the world than sitting down and watching the news. In the case of Trump’s Paris Agreement announcement, funny tweets were mixed in with more mainstream news sources. We are currently studying more climate change social media content to see if this is a wider trend.”

Although the team has more work to do on the Paris Agreement announcement Twitter activity, they presented their findings so far to the COP23 audience, along with the social media research they had been carrying out about the conference itself as it unfolded in Bonn over the two weeks.

Speaking at the conference, Suay said: “We have been using COP23 both to present the work we have done so far, and build our own understanding of social media communication of climate change advance our work.

“I have been here for the full two weeks, observing offline and online space, participating in all the on-the-ground digital and social media activities, talking to participants informally, conducting interviews, and sampling interviewees. While I have been doing this, Warren and Sabine have been collecting and sifting through tweets.”

The team found that there were a lot of hashtags being used around the event and Twitter was definitely the medium used most at COP23, however although there was a lot of tweeting taking place, it seemed quite insular.

The data collected showed that the scale of COP23 on Twitter was nowhere near as large as the peak in Twitter activity caused by Trump’s Paris announcement for two reasons: anything Trump-related is inflated and there showed to be no viral content in the data set created by COP23 tweets.

Warren said: “What the Twitter activity wasn't doing was reaching out to large numbers of members of the public outside the conference. If the conference is intended to be more public-facing, the Twitter data suggested that is not being achieved.”

The study is still ongoing and the team will be interviewing more people.

In conclusion, Warren added: “People commented to me that our event at COP23 was the first time anyone had given a presentation on social media at the climate conference, as presentations given were usually science or policy focused.

“Social media is not the shiny, new thing it once was but I think for the environment particularly, and the Donald Trump effect and that Twitter in particular is such a big driver of how he’s seen, I think people still see it as being very important.

This is the most interest there’s been in climate change on social media this year, more than any other year we have on record by a large distance. There’s been the assumption in some polls that people are less interested in climate change and it’s no longer the ‘new problem’, but people still suggest to me very clearly that it’s still a very live issue and perhaps politicians need to catch up with the public a bit.”

Later this year, the Making Climate Social website will extend this research, providing a public means to explore the most talked-about aspects of climate change across different social media platforms.