One of the biggest influences on human behaviour is other people. So how can we harness the power of public figures – from celebrities to social media creators – in our climate communications?
In our media-saturated culture, celebrities and influencers thrive. Those with fame or followers wield huge power, so how is this being used to inspire people to engage with the issues of climate change?
As far back as 2014, National Geographic showed just how useful celebrities can be in driving climate messages home when it released the Emmy award-winning Years of Living Dangerously. The hit show followed Matt Damon, Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Jack Black and other A-listers around the world to show the effects of climate change and the solutions people are finding to address it. “The scientists would never get the kind of attention that someone in showbusiness gets,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, who executive produced the show. It is exactly celebrities’ ability to make people sit up and take notice that makes their contribution to climate communications so impactful.
We have seen this power at work in the UK recently too, with Channel Four’s Climate Emergency Season, a series of climate-related shows featuring well-known TV faces. In one episode, celebrated UK broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham explores whether he thinks it is ethically acceptable to break the law to protest against government policies that harm the environment. After it aired, the UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman went on television to denounce it: “I totally refute what Chris Packham and organisations like Just Stop Oil stand for. They take a militant, aggressive approach to prosecuting their cause. Totally unacceptable.” But the programme worked in getting politicians and the general public talking about the issues raised.
Royals and religious figures
It’s not just celebrities who are using their influence to inspire action. In the podcast Changing the Climate Conversation from our very own Small World Stories, Esmeralda de Belgique, the daughter of King Leopold III of Belgium, talks about joining Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019 with the expressed purpose of getting arrested to galvanize support for the cause.
In this fascinating study The Faith Factor in Climate Change: How Religion Impacts American Attitudes on Climate and Environmental Policy, the authors describe how Pope Francis and other major Jewish, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders are also using their influence to call for environmental activism. The study goes on to assess how people’s religious beliefs, as well as things like which news show they watch, influence their views on climate change. What this – and other developments like the campaign to get TV weathercasters to become climate change educators – show is the wide range of people in the public realm who have the power to shape people’s attitudes and behaviours.
Influencers and content creators
And so to social media, one of the most influential mediums going. Research suggests three out of four people are more likely to adopt sustainable behaviours after watching social media content. In this Solutions House video, Futerra asks whether climate communicators are overlooking one of the greatest forces for sparking change.
Solitaire Townsend, Futerra’s co-founder, certainly thinks so: “You don’t interact with them [creators] in the same way that you do a celebrity or the news media – creators are our friends, we are part of their family…we follow the everyday ups and downs of their lives in a way that’s more real and more authentic than any other form of media. That gives creators a way to engage with their followers, with their family, with their communities on some of these incredibly important issues in a way unparalleled in the whole history of climate change.”
Sadly, as disinformation expert Erika Seiber writes in this opinion piece, the reverse is also true. Recent research from DeSmog shows that oil companies have used hundreds of social media influencers to promote oil and gas giants worldwide since 2017, reaching billions of people. The issue is now so prevalent Glimpse is running a campaign to dissuade creators from contributing to greenwashing. Their spoof influencer post, which you can find on The Drum coverage, is brilliant and biting in equal measure. But this just speaks to the awesome power of creators and influencers and the difference they can make with the right campaign behind them. They are also far more accessible than many public figures, which can only be good news for climate communicators.
For those of us looking for new ways to inspire climate action, the sheer breadth of people who may be able to help opens up many exciting possibilities. And with each voice added, the climate movement will get one step closer to achieving its goals.
All of the resources mentioned in this blog – and many more – can be found on the Climate Communications Resources Hub, a collaborative initiative led by Small World Stories to help everyone communicate more effectively about the climate crisis and its solutions.