The election of Donald Trump was a shock for the climate movement. His victory brutally confronted us with its own failures. Looking at the bigger picture, many commentators considered Trump’s election as a final proof for a new, post-factual age: the internet with its filter bubbles is to blame for the new, epistemological deficit. Climate protection is only one particularly illustrative example of the ignorance towards facts. If we want to win the climate fight, the climate movement has to understand the situation and reinvent itself. Here are three theses on the way forward:


1) The Internet is not our problem, but our solution

Ideology has always been a popular heuristic to cope with the world’s complexity. Particularly for climate change, we have been facing a long history of fake science. And polarization trends have been observed in the USA since the 1970s. In the case of climate change, the issue got more polarized in the 90ties driven by a false understanding of balance in the media.

Not only in the USA, but also in general, in Western societies, there is bigger skepticism among the political right regarding climate protection. Social Media and Digitalization with news algorithms have only functioned as a catalyst of deeper trends. But the scope is certainly new.

“The place once held by facts is taken over by data“, Jill Lepore writes in his brilliant essay. The algorithm of Google and Facebook optimise themselves according to the expectations of its users, not facts. So far, digital communication technologies seem to strengthen existing expectations and attitudes. However, this can also be used to the contrary.

“Reason cannot defend itself without relying on reason,” writes Jill Lepore elsewhere. That’s right. But if facts are our only weapon against ignorance we will lose the fight. The climate movement has used pictures, emotions and value-based communication. But those primarily only reached the usual suspects and only targeted left and liberal mindsets.

The climate movement lost the conservatives, not only in the USA. But the Montreal Protocol was made under leadership from Thatcher and Reagan. Long before Bush Junior pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, his father used the slogan „We will fight the greenhouse gas effect with the white house effect.“

The climate movement needs to win back conservatives. This seems particularly difficult in a time of polarization and filter bubbles where each niche can form its exclusive version of the truth. But first of all, the transformation to stop climate change is too big to not build a broad consensus. Secondly, we have to start using digital technology for this purpose. We need to use data and algorithms to break through filter bubbles. Paid content is only the most obvious possibility of a channel. Comparatively cheap and simple message tests and data analysis make it make it easier than ever before to adjust wording, framing, and narrative to those who have not yet been achieved. To get there, we have we have to recruit.


2) The climate movement needs a massive digital armament

Environmental organizations hired a lot of Social Media Campaigners and used new channels. But essentially, this was not innovative.

At least as much recruiting of data-analyzers and the purchasing of large amounts of data is necessary. Only that will enable us to really work not only on the surface but with the infrastructure of digital technologies. Since big-data analysis is not hypothesis-driven but works only with correlations, it enables a tailored targeting without a preceding understanding of values interested and user habits.

The election of Trump also brought a short hysteric debate around one data-company that ensured his victory. The implied hypothesis, that one only needs to analyze targets groups well enough to be able to manipulate them ad libitum, is wrong. Even Petabytes of data don’t create a ‚Magic-Bullet-Effect‘. Climate change demands complex solutions, which create new challenges themselves – for instance in regions that make a living from coal mining. Simply tailored message-repose-communication won’t do it. It’s too complex to nudge – even with data.

But the use of data will make targeting much more effective and will at least make it easier to start dialogues with people we might not reach at all otherwise. Analysis and micro-targeting are a first step. But we need to go beyond messaging. We need new messengers and multiplicators to burst the bubbles. We, therefore, need to develop a new understanding of multiplicators and influencers.


3) We need a new definition of influencers

So far, we identified influencers primarily based on the quantity of people they reach: The number of followers or the interaction rates counted.

But those might not be the people who really spread ideas. Those are the folks who reinforce the pre-existing. Not people with big homogenous networks spread ideas in societies. The people who are the link between cohesive, homogeneous networks are the ones who spread ideas (if you want to get nerdy about this, read „Diffusion of Innovations“ by Rogers).

To overcome polarization and to start a dialogue which is necessary -because the problem of climate change is too big to be solved by nudging and messaging – the climate movement needs to seek new influencers with heterogeneous networks.

We know from experiments that people are much more likely to accept an opposing view or fact if it comes from a friend. Research also shows that ideas often spread quite similar to diseases – they are infectious if you like. And there is plenty of research on that: One study used mathematical models to make vaccination more effective: It turned out that it was more effective to vaccinate the 30% with the most diverse networks rather than random 99% of a population to prevent outspread.

In other words, to burst the filter bubbles we need a new understanding of influencers which specifically incorporates the diversity of the networks of influencers – including a number of parameters such as demographic data, interests, political attitude etc. Practically speaking we need network analysis which goes beyond different centrality parameters. We need to target those new multiplicators data-based and learn from what works and what not for who. There a. And there are many unanswered questions and so many more possibilties. So lets start thinking about how to make use of them.


Contact us! This is not meant to be a blueprint. And there are plenty of questions not covered – what about data protection and privacy? At Climate Tracker we are currently seeking and developing new ideas on how to use digital technologies to win the climate fight. We don’t have all the answers but we are looking for them. We need much more ideas and even more importantly implement them – so if you have any comments or ideas, I am really happy to hear back from you: [email protected]

Andreas Sieber

About Andreas Sieber