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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."

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