Placing people at the heart of net-zero transition
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their latest report declared an emergency stating that we have a narrow window of opportunity to act on climate change. Reaching net-zero is even more critical now. However, little know-how exists on an equitable and equal net zero pathway. Framing decisions based on this little knowledge will further deepen social injustices. There is an urgent global call for collective action in addressing climate change, primarily through citizen participation in net-zero decision making. This is called people-centric transition.
Social media platforms provide a unique opportunity to measure how people think and interact on global challenges, including climate change. Over four billion people globally use Facebook and Twitter as a medium to access information on climate change and its mitigation strategies. For example, the image above shows a real-time Twitter network of #climatechange for 24th March 2022, with over 1.5 million interactions within just one hour. This data demonstrates the power of such platforms as a medium for enabling people-centric net-zero transition.
In my ongoing research, I am evaluating whether public engagement over time (2009 - 2021) on emissions reduction on Twitter impacted social and environmental justice. It is a critical policy question as it can demonstrate the effectiveness of such platforms in leveraging the collective wisdom of people towards a common goal of achieving net-zero. However, using Twitter and Facebook as a communication medium for climate action in the current state has some challenges. The first is that we do not clearly understand the structure of misinformation or who sets the agenda in these platforms. It creates misinformation and disinformation that cause more harm than good. Second, these social media platforms have embedded limitations regarding who can access them. Even if people have access, the question is how many actually engage in climate communication. For example, a recent analysis by Twitter shows in a global sample of English Tweets from 2013-2020, mentions of “climate change” grew an average of 50%. The increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events is amplified in Twitter conversation.
Furthermore, there are technological challenges with regard to the effectiveness of the identification and filtration of climate misinformation and who the gatekeepers are. At present, such technical and algorithmic decisions are restricted to the owners or board members of these tech companies, limiting information transparency. Therefore, I am evaluating how these organisations communicate with the public on social media by developing natural language processing-based algorithms. I am also examining at what level misinformation is embedded in the communication process.
My analysis using over 1.5 million tweets shows that the flow of climate misinformation on Twitter has a triangulated form that passes across different stakeholders. For example, I found that fossil fuel industry drives the climate narrative through greenwashing that influences intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to react through topics on coal pollution, fossil fuel divestment and environmental justice. However, this reaction further influences the fossil industry to reiterate their greenwashing behaviour to obfuscate consumers, while moving away from climate action.
With this understanding, the goal is to empower people to make informed and just decisions towards climate action, mobilising a people-centric transition. I had a chance to recently present this research to Twitter headquarters in the UK. They acknowledged their need for proactive role in enabling fair and trustworthy climate communication. A common outcome derived from my meeting with Twitter was on allowing greater collaboration between the social media industry and academia, especially on increasing the role of social science and humanities researchers in these tech companies.
Dr Ramit Debnath  is a sustainability fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge and a visiting faculty associate in Computational Social Science at Caltech. He is passionate about informing public policy on climate and energy justice using data science and computational social science. More information can be found here.