Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.



Using Memes To Improve Climate Change Communication

People aren’t listening to the science, so it’s time to employ another avenue: getting it into people’s heads virally. Here’s how.

Why don’t people take climate change more seriously? There are several answers to this, of course—including well-funded attacks by shadowy groups. But, partly, it’s a failure to communicate. The messaging around global warming has been wrong, because we’ve under-appreciated what drives people to take positions on the issue.

Joe Brewer and Balazs Lazlo Karafiath, partners in a San Francisco consultancy called DarwinSF, are interested in memes—ideas, or pieces of culture (think Gangnam Style) that spread virally, until they don’t. They see climate change as a meme—something that’s experienced not viscerally, but as an idea. Part of the problem with its communication, they say, is its weakness as a meme: less Psy, more Seoul nightclub crooner.

"Global warming is a meme. No-one experiences it directly. They experience it through perception," says Brewer, who has a background in cognitive linguistics. "The science is pointing out a very real empirical phenomenon, but the only way people can experience it is as stories and ideas in their lives."

To understand people’s feelings better, Brewer and Karafiath crowd-funded a research project on Indiegogo and RocketHub. They gathered 5,000 memes from hackathons, Facebook, and Twitter, and then analyzed the phrases for resonant ideas. They were interested in the whole gamut of thinking, pro and con, including statements like "Friends don’t let friends be climate change deniers," as well as "Remember when a tornado was just a tornado and not a commercial for global warming". From the 5,000, they narrowed the memes down to 900 unique ideas, then put those in five categories: "harmony," "survival," "cooperation," "momentum," and "elitism." They call these buckets "drivers of perception for climate change".

"Seeing that this composition of tensions makes up the global warming meme tells us a great deal about why it won’t go viral. People have built-in protection mechanisms that activate psychologically when threats arise against worldview and identity," Brewer says.

As you might expect, the researchers found a lot of dark thoughts about climate change. But the good news, according to Brewer and Karafiath, is that only about 5% of people have actually been "infected by the meme" (care either way). Everyone else is up for grabs. "It may seem counter-intuitive, but the failure of the global warming meme (as it currently exists) means a better meme can fill the void—if only we can figure out what it is," the report says.

Brewer and Karafiath reckon the way forward is to think laterally, outside the global warming "meme space." They note that inspiring themes like love, creativity, and collaboration tend to be left out of the discussion, and suggest that possibilities exist to tie global warming to trends in social media (which flattens governance structures), the sharing economy, and the open-source movement.

"There are opportunities for global warming in memes that are not actually about global warming," says Brewer. "It’s actually about this burgeoning social movement that lends itself to global warming, and gives it a sense of momentum and unity."

The report, called "Global Warming Is A Virus"—which includes the colorful "meme map" above—is available for gratis here. Brewer and Karafiath don’t claim it is the final answer, but rather a starting point that they and others can build on. "It’s for the creative commons," Brewer says. "We’re keen to work in an open, collaborative way on this."

Add New Comment


  • mememine

    Former climate blame believers are better planet lovers: Science never lied or committed a hoax, it was you believers and politicians and lazy copy and paste news editors that had exaggerated the science itself.
    “Help my planet could possibly be on fire maybe?”
    After 28 years of research the scientists still refuse to say their CO2 crisis is as real as they like to say asteroid hits are; inevitable and eventual or WILL happen not just might and could and maybe and….. 28 years of “maybe” proves it won’t be a crisis.So how close to unstoppable warming will science lead us before they finally would say it WILL happen not just might happen.
    Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by corporations.

  • Dave W

    It's not like " themes like love, creativity, and collaboration" haven't been tried and laughed off the stage. Besides, that whole "basket" has already been co-opted by the fossil-fuel/pollution lobbies. Personally I think the open-source movement is the most important model for social and consciousness change, but don't see how trying to use it WRT climate change would do anything but further confuse perceptions.

    To me, there are three large obstacles working against successfully communicating about the problem:

    -- the fear that climate-change policy threatens jobs, which is true in the near term in some specific enterprises. The coal miner or oil worker is not consoled that there may be more energy jobs in the future for some. Changing this anti-meme can only be accomplished by demonstrating on the ground, not on paper, that it isn't true. The fear is compounded by the sense that it's already too late, leading to either denial or hopelessness paralysis.

    -- the huge imbalance in media access between the pollution lobby and the rest of us. Yeah, yeah, Internet, but the vast majority of people still form their opinions from what's on the tv or in the magazine or paper. The Net for the most part just echoes that. Until the oligarchy is either deprived of its meme-monopoly (by vastly increasing truly independent media, for example) or until the oligarchy has found ways to control and monetize

    -- I think the climate change movement is making a crippling mistake by trying to use the threat as a prod instead of making it the keystone for a whole range of environmental issues, from water and food shortages to extinction to air pollution to disease and all the rest. This is the one most easily tackled because unlike climate change alone, it's effects can be demonstrated clearly and locally. Environmental advocates have been sidetracked by focusing on only one slice of the holistic reality of what's happening to every part of the planet. We need to give up the temptations of climate-change drama and go back the the whole-environment meme backed by much better scientific and economic analysis.