Decoding the climate activism space
Updated: Feb 17
Last year, the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day looked a little different. Twelve hours of live streaming music, hopeful messages, plant-based recipe ideas, and art from a network of street artists. As the onset of COVID-19 clamped down on mass gathering, climate activists are finding creative ways to stay involved and get their message out. From holding digital strikes to tweeting up a storm, digital platforms have shaped a new era of climate activism.
The climate activism space was originally dominated by large organizations such as Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy. However, digital platforms have shifted the landscape by making space for new players, amplifying public engagement, and connecting activists.
The Internet has allowed for newer organizations and individual activists to build a movement more cost-effectively and at a greater scale. Instead of spending funds to convene people at physical venues, they can reach thousands of people through a Tweet. For example, 350.org was one of the first climate advocacy groups to start on the Internet. Its online tactics - like viral hashtags and petitions - have spurred offline action, such as the 2015 Global Climate March that saw more than 500,000 people participate.
The Internet has also helped activists to self-organize across sectors and tap into a digitally savvy generation. For example, Greta Thunberg, a teenage environmental activist, founded the Friday for Future movement. The movement mobilized 13 million people and created a space for young climate activists to advise global and national policies. Across sectors, a media agency, like The Guardian, collaborated with 350.org to launch the ‘Keep It in the Ground’ campaign with 400 organizations committing to slow down climate change.
While the Internet has played a vital role in shifting the digital activism landscape, it has also confused the climate change discourse. Misinformation around climate change is rampant online causing skepticism and polarization on issues such as global warming. The threat of growing misinformation can slow down climate movements and political action. Therefore, it is vital that climate organizations are digitally savvy and tap into the power of the Internet to fight misinformation and further their cause.
Furthermore, restrictions around COVID-19 and growing alarm around climate change have made activism online more pertinent. However, there is a dearth of literature on digital climate activism and how it has incited engagement and action.
The Quilt.AI team set out to address this gap and understand - what are dominant climate issues being covered? What makes these climate change campaigns effective and what can others learn from them?
The team selected 100 ongoing climate campaigns by global movements and organizations. These campaigns originated from a grassroots movement and grew to a global scale (e.g. Global Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion). We then used an AI Cultural tool to analyze the campaigns’ social media posts, including semiotics of text, videos, and images that saw the highest engagement.
What’s in a campaign: geographies and issues that dominate
The selected campaigns originated from 9 different countries. A majority (49%) emerged from the United States, followed by Kenya (15%) and the Netherlands (14%). Several other campaigns started from countries such as the Philippines (#breakfreefromplastic), Switzerland, and Sweden.
A closer look at each campaign’s theme shows us that the dominant focus is on climate policy. About 24% of campaigns advocate for policymakers to enact or change policies that will benefit the planet (e.g. renewable energy bill, natural resource conservation). This is followed by focus areas on Marine Conservation (12%) and Plastic Pollution (12%).
What's in a campaign: characteristics and followers
Campaigns have divergent focus areas, but their approach and target audience differ as well. A deep dive of the campaigns showed similar characteristics across four clusters: mass mobilizers, milestone campaigns, decentralized campaigns, and lifestyle catalysts.
What’s in a campaign: takeaways and learnings
Individuals are willing to take action on climate change as long as there is a clear course of action or there are steps to be taken
Decentralized and Lifestyle Catalyst campaigns, which provide concrete steps to take action, have the highest engagement. Decentralized campaigns saw activity from 433 million people while life catalysts engaged 388 million. Both campaigns take a similar approach in outlining specific actions but differ in ways to take action. For example, decentralized campaigns encourage specific actions (e.g. sign a petition) that people can carry out online through a click or retweet.
On the other hand, lifestyle catalyst campaigns provide choices on daily lifestyle changes. Since Gen Y makes up a majority of the campaigns’ supporters, their recommendations to “live a sustainable lifestyle” or “low carbon footprint life” resonate as they are the most aware and involved in climate change issues.
Before targeting messages with action steps, it is important to understand people’s perceptions of climate change. Quilt.AI launched a Climate Dashboard Tool that, for the first time ever, monitored people's search behavior to understand their perceptions and leniencies towards climate activism and how to nudge them towards action or advocacy. These insights can help organizations develop campaign messaging based on audience leniencies and the types of actions most likely to be adopted.
The easiest and quickest way to incite action is through online platforms
Decentralized campaigns rely majorly on the scale of the Internet for success. Therefore, adopting multiple digital platforms is a major part of their campaign strategies. This is evident in the high reach numbers (433 million) compared to other types of campaigns.
A closer examination of the campaigns within the cluster also reflect that:
60% of them aim to raise awareness by sharing information through their network (e.g. use a hashtag)
40% aim to change an existing policy through an online petition or signature campaign
3. Women and Gen Y are most engaged in campaigns
A closer look at the campaign clusters indicate that their majority of supporters are from
Generation Y. As campaigns adapt and spread their message through social media, they should tap into this segment due to their high consumption of information on digital platforms and willingness to actively engage.
A demographic breakdown of the different campaign clusters shows that 55% of the supporters for Lifestyle Catalysts campaigns are women. This indicates that women are more interested in campaigns that provide practical steps and measures on saving the environment.
Climate activism is an evolving landscape
More and more people are sounding the alarm on the impact of climate change. Much of this awareness is a result of years-long climate change campaigns - both offline and online. As the climate activism landscape shifts towards the Internet, there is a need to understand how other issues can harness the same power and scale. Despite the good that online platforms have brought, they are also rife with counter narratives on climate change. This makes it more important than ever for organizations and activists to understand digital platforms and strategically use them to nudge people towards climate action.
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