Climate activists take to social media for Paris summit, but who are they reaching?

Shoes in Place de la Republique - Climate of Peace #climat2paix. Photo taken by John Englart in Paris on November 29. Takver/flickr, CC BY-SA

With public demonstrations banned at the COP21 conference on climate change in Paris, climate activists are taking to social media to get out their message on climate justice.

Before the official summit kicked off, activists held more than 2,300 events in over 175 countries in a Global Climate March, rallying around the shared goal, “Keep fossil fuels in the ground and finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.”

Global activism is impressive in scale, but are activists reaching people on social media who are not already supporters of action on climate change?

My analysis of social media after the first week of the summit shows little interaction between climate activists and the industry most closely associated with carbon emissions: oil and gas.

‘Hashtag publics’

In research recently published in Public Understanding of Science, a colleague and I studied conversations on Twitter about fracking during an international day of protest, called the Global Frackdown, which had a similar organizing model to the the Global Climate March.

This research on transnational anti-fracking activism shows segmented “hashtag publics” of activists and industry supporters who are not talking to each other. They used different hashtags, which led to essentially two parallel conversations happening on Twitter.

For example, the hashtags #natgas (short for “natural gas”) and #shalegas (a reference to shale rock formations where gas is drilled from) mean the same thing but had almost exactly opposite proportions of pro- and anti-shale tweets. A majority of #natgas tweets were supportive of shale development, while #shalegas tweets were more negative to industry, according to our analysis. What’s more, conversation on the general #fracking hashtag during the 2013 Global Frackdown consisted largely of activists talking to each other with little engagement from industry.

COP21 conversational clusters from November 28 to December 4. The visualization includes a sample of 1,000 posts.

In related research in the open access journal Social Media + Society, I found that Global Frackdown activists used Twitter to strengthen a transnational collective identity centered on banning fracking and promoting renewable energy. Activists were successful at using Twitter to make connections with like-minded movements and talk to each other across different languages more than engaging in conversation with other types of stakeholders, such as people from industry and government officials, on the issues.

Taken together, these studies highlight a problem. Addressing climate change requires coordination between civil society and oil and gas energy industry stakeholders, along with nation-states and multinational actors. Stakeholders can’t work successfully together if they don’t talk to each other, which did not occur during the Global Frackdown.

Climate activists online en masse

What’s happening so far at the Paris climate summit? In order to answer the question of whether or not stakeholders were engaging with each other in social media conversations during the first week of the Paris climate summit, I collected a series of social post streams in software that analyzes data from social media, including Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, Google Plus and Tumblr. I visualized posts for the data from November 28, to include Global Climate March events, through December 4.

To compare general COP21 conversation to that of climate activists and the fossil fuel industry, I set up five sets of searches:

  1. Conference hashtags, including #COP21 and #COP21Paris

  2. Global Climate March search terms and hashtags in English, French and Spanish – #climatemarch, #marchaporelclima and #marcheclimat

  3. Fossil fuel divestment general terms and hashtags #keepitintheground and #divestforParis

  4. General search terms and hashtags for the oil and natural gas industry, eg, #oilandgas and #natgas

  5. Climate change generally, excluding COP 21 terms, with hashtags #climate and #climatechange.

Not surprisingly, COP21 conversation dominated the week, with a 69% share of the posts related to those search terms, followed by climate change in general at 21% and the Global Climate March with 8%. Fossil fuel divestment, along with the oil and natural gas industry, had less than 5% in terms of the share of voice for all posts examined.

Share of voice comparison during the first week of the Paris Conference of Parties (COP21), including the dates of the Global Climate March, from November 28 to December 4.

For COP21 conversation, the top @mentioned accounts on Twitter were the official conference handle @cop21, followed by US President Barack Obama (@potus), French President François Hollande (@fhollande) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (@narendramodi). The more than 2.4 million posts had a reach of 26 billion potential impressions, as calcuated by the Crimson Hexagon software. The activist #climatemarch hashtag was among the top 10 hashtags.

The 50 most influential authors, as measured by Klout scores, included the World Bank, the United Nations, politicians and mainstream news organizations, but no energy industry actors.

The most retweeted post for #COP21 conversation was astronaut Scott Kelly’s post from the International Space Station on November 30.

Where was oil and gas?

Then I looked at two sets of climate activist conversation streams, the Global Climate March and fossil fuel divestment. Climate march posts peaked as demonstrations took place over the weekend leading up to the start of the Paris summit.

Geographical distribution of COP21 posts, from November 28 to December 4. The deeper the shading the higher the volume of posts.

The more than 275,000 climate march posts had 1.7 billion potential impressions and included posts from 148 countries (as measured by 73% of the total with identifiable locations). France ranked sixth among top countries, likely because the French government has banned public demonstrations. The US led with 23% of posts, followed by the UK (20%), Spain (12%), Australia (6%) and Canada with 5%.

For climate march posts, the top mentioned users on Twitter were mostly activist accounts, such as the Spanish organizations Alianza por el Clima (@AlianzaXClima) and Greenpeace España (@greenpeace_esp), 350.org (@350), Avaaz (@Avaaz), and Bill McKibben (@billmckibben). The most retweeted post of the week by divestment activists was 350.org’s announcement on Wednesday that fossil fuel divestment commitments had reached more than US$3.4 trillion.

Oil and natural gas industry conversational clusters from November 28 to December 4. The visualization includes a sample of 1,000 posts.

Meanwhile, oil and natural gas industry conversation largely bypassed climate issues and focused on industry performance, Turkey and ISIS, as well as oil and gas infrastructure. The 50 most influential actors included The Economist, Sierra Club, the World Economic Forum, Shell, Exxon Mobil and the US Energy Information Administration. Of a sample of posts dealing with the oil and gas industry, 2% included the term “COP21” (1,011 out of 61,114 sampled).

Oil and gas industry actors did not appear among the top @mentions, most prolific contributors or 50 most influential for the COP21 social post stream.

Dialogue?

After the first week of this much-anticipated climate summit, we can see a similar pattern to the online fracking protest: climate activists have inserted themselves into the broader conversation at COP21, while oil and gas industry stakeholders are not widely engaging on climate change in social media and online conversations.

Climate activists do not seem to be trying to engage with oil and gas stakeholders. At the same time, the oil and gas industry has largely ignored COP21 despite the clamor from activists.

Activists are planning additional actions for December 12, after the summit’s conclusion. Whether or not they can reach beyond core supporters – and stakeholders talk to each other across strategic divides – has implications for the outcomes of the climate conference. Activists are advocating for a large-scale reduction of emissions yet this is unlikely to happen without participation and engagement with the fossil fuel industries.

The year 2014 was the hottest on record. At the same time, social and mobile media technologies are providing new ways for activists to voice their concerns on climate change. With mobile devices individuals can have larger, more diverse networks of weak, or distant, social ties. These digital transformations are taking place on a global scale. Within the next five years, eight out of ten adults worldwide will own a smartphone. So the potential for social media to mobilize people and influence public policy is vast.

Yet reaching across strategic interests and partisan divides is critical to garner collective support for an agreement at the summit. Climate activists and energy industry stakeholders would do well to start engaging each other in dialogue on social platforms as the Paris climate conference enters week two.