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How Al Gore is using social media to try to change the conversation on climate change

Climate change has a serious communication problem. Will Al Gore be the one to help fix it?

A picture of Al Gore speaking at Google earlier this year.
A picture of Al Gore speaking at Google earlier this year.

These two lines of thought simultaneously ran through my head as I dialed into a phone interview last week with the former Vice President, who earlier that week had confirmed that he once tried unsuccessfully to buy Twitter and merge it with Current TV (first reported in Nick Bilton’s book). Naturally Gore and his team behind environmental social media effort The Climate Reality Project had an agenda for the interview: to tell me about their third annual 24 Hours of Reality, a live online broadcast that kicks off this Tuesday and which over a 24-hour-period will showcase the local effects of extreme weather and carbon pollution across six continents.

Gore, who’s as congenial as he is media-trained in a phone interview on the topic of climate change, launched the first of these online broadcast efforts back in 2011. He tells me that the second one last year brought in 16 million viewers, with an average of almost an hour of viewing time per person. This year he says he expects the third event will “far exceed those numbers.”

What’s promising

On one hand, the 24 Hours of Reality and The Climate Reality Project is exactly what the climate change issue needs. The effects of global warming have been notoriously hard to communicate for many reasons, including that carbon pollution isn’t visible, that a lot of questions remain about the effects of carbon emissions on the planet, and that the entire subject is quite polarizing, at least in the U.S. (example A, the inevitable trolling that will happen in the comment section of this post).

Specifically the 24 Hours of Reality is looking to focus the conversation around the effects of extreme weather, a relatively new way to position the discussion given the world has been seeing an increasing amount of extreme weather ever year. “The most persuasive voice has been Mother Nature,” Gore told me. “Extreme weather has captured the attention of the world.”

Getty Images
Super Storm Sandy, Getty Images

Many point to superstorm Sandy as one of the first times that a growing mainstream U.S.-based discussion emerged around the connection between extreme weather, climate change and carbon pollution. Right after the storm, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.” If you tune into the broadcast on Tuesday, expect to see segments on the expensive cleanup process of the East Coast storm.

The broadcast is also an effort to localize content, moving climate change from the problems of polar bears to showcasing the everyday effects of major storms, floods and water and food shortages in cities, towns and villages near you. Because, of course, personalizing the issue is probably one of the best ways to drive it home.

The Climate Reality Project is relying heavily on social media and new media to craft its message, recruit participants and bring in viewers. It’s one way to attract, and galvanize, young viewers, and it’s also a way to make the project interactive. Alongside the broadcast, The Climate Reality Project is launching a Carbon Tab, where viewers can calculate the cost of carbon in their daily lives.

Gore told me that they’re embracing online and social media partly because it has a lower barrier to entry than working with traditional media, which he said have mostly fallen down on the job of covering climate change. Online and social media is also displacing traditional media in many ways, so there’s no reason why his group shouldn’t be at the forefront of the discussion, said Gore, who helped sell his new media network Current TV to Al Jazeera earlier this year (and reportedly made $70 million off the deal).

What’s polarizing

The Climate Reality Project and the 24 Hours of Reality, however, face the same problem that other organizations fighting this same battle face: how much of this is just about preaching to the choir. Are there actually people who previously don’t know much about climate change — or better yet are skeptical — that would tune in to a broadcast led by Al Gore and then change their minds?

I asked Gore that question and he said he’s actually been seeing a steady flow of people moving from the questioning camp into the taking-the-issue-seriously camp. “The polling indicates this,” he said, and people who have tuned into the broadcast in the past aren’t just young people, Gore insisted. I really hope this turns out to be true.

What the climate change issue needs is a way to discuss the topic that isn’t polarizing. Unfortunately Gore himself is one of the more polarizing figures politically, which at the end of the day could make anything associated with him polarizing, too.

I’ll be tuning into the 24 Hours of Reality broadcast, which kicks off at 11AM PST on Tuesday in the U.S. and runs over the 22nd and the 23rd. I’ll be looking for examples of ways they are broadening the conversation and hopefully bringing in new viewers outside of the obvious young, liberal activist demographic.

15 Responses to “How Al Gore is using social media to try to change the conversation on climate change”

  1. Joseph Rumell

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  2. Joseph Rumell

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  3. Thank you Katie. Appreciate your work.

    It’s not entirely accurate to describe Gore as “polarizing”. The political and media machine built around climate denial will attack anyone asserting the scientific consensus, thereby creating the polarization…

    Comments in this thread are a good example.

  4. This is a very disappointing and parti pris “report”.

    The climate change lobby does not have a communication problem; despite its flimsy basis, it has been an extraordinary communications success.

    This is largely due to the bizarre, uncritical parroting of its central tenets by journalists like Ms Fehrenbacher.

  5. If Al Gore were honestly concerned about climate change, the best thing that he could do would be to stop talking about it, and leave science to the scientists. His credibility is basically zero, he has made too many alarmist speeches that have turned out to be totally fabricated.

    What’s more, his high profile lifestyle is drastically at odds with the austerity that he preaches for everyone else. He’s made huge amounts of money selling the idea of climate change caused by industrialization to a handful of people who were already predisposed to the idea, but in the process he has done a lot of damage to the cause he claims to support.

    If I did feel that the science were on the side of human caused global warming, I would do everything in my power to shut that man up. As it is, I appreciate the fact that his actions make people question the idea.

  6. I’m no longer shocked when journalists and bloggers include pictures of the aftermaths of hurricanes and tornados in their token global warming articles, attempting to advance their agenda using the age-old tactic of conjuring irrational fear from the scientific ignorance of common people.

    Because this is globalwarmingism today. It has degraded from an “environmental” cause into a guerrilla campaign to scare these poor folks who are unaware the earth has been warming since the peak of the last ice age, roughly 12,500 years ago.

    Well, it has been a joyous surprise, these past 10 years, to witness how people are actually not so dumb, as each remaining person eventually learns we are still exiting an ice age, and therefore STILL WARMING FROM THE ICE AGE.

    Day by day, the “globalwarmingist” movement shrinks further. So much so, that in the last presidential election, less than 0.01% of respondents in a national poll listed “global warming” as an issue of concern.

    The myth of man-made long term climate cycles has been debunked. The corrupt IPCC data has been retracted. So let’s move on.

    Good-hearted people like the author, who fell for the whole “global warming” media blitz, ought to now refocus. The environment still DESPERATELY needs our help.

    The greatest threats to life on Earth are:

    3) POLLUTION (from real pollutants, not harmless CO2)

    Authors: Let’s write about these causes, not phony ones like “global warming”.

  7. snuggles

    Instead of whining about the “inevitable trolling”, why not help us people who are skeptics wonder how this Climate Reality project is going to change minds? What’s the hook for the uninformed? What scientists will be answering questions that the public has?

    This blog post reads like a lame press release. I expected better out of you, Katie.

  8. David Nutzuki

    You climate change believers say a crisis will happen while for 30 years science has only agreed on nothing beyond “could be” and have never said or agreed that we will have an inevitable or eventual crisis. So why are YOU saying we are doomed? Not one IPCC warning says it and not one IPCC warning isn’t swimming in “maybes”. You remaining believers can only say “could” happen not WILL happen just like science says. Deal?

    • alanyshapiro

      The reason the IPCC has to use conservative language is because it’s a large organization organization with a reputation for strong science that needs to be upheld. The IPCC can merely point out the possiblities; they cannot choose sides. On the other hand, if you look at unrelated disciplines such as economics, individuals (eg. Jeffrey Sachs) have much more freedom to choose sides and hold more radical opinions. The fact that the IPCC doesn’t say that “we’re doomed” is the same reason a Fortune 500 company won’t say to it’s stakeholders that they are a sinking ship. That said, we have to keep in mind that our planet doesn’t play by the rules of politics and reputations, so a crisis is indeed a realistic concern. I think the more important here is that given even the possibility of a crisis (eg. Hurricane Sandy or rising sea levels), we need to take all possible actions to prevent it.

    • I’ve been fighting for our children and yourself before there was the term Global Warming or Climate Change…
      If we are going to stop anything we need to stop polluting the air. Over twenty years ago 1.2million children died yearly of Asthma due to Idiling automobiles. Today it has almost doubled …3.2 million children are dying from it .
      Lung cancer rates are skyrocketing and it’s not do to cigarettes .

      If not climate change do something for the Health of the World.

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      Producer Nicholas Kline and our 30 minute solution