I am attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate change negotiations, COP24, for the first time this week. In UN-lingo “COP24” means this is the 24th Conference of the Parties since 1995 when COP1 was held in Berlin, Germany. 

The COP24 is taking place in Katowice, Poland from Dec. 2 to 14. It has brought tens of thousands of people, including delegates, or “parties,” along with civil society representatives, to Poland’s Upper Silesia region. 

As media coverage has already noted, this is Polish coal country, with about 80% of the nation’s electricity coming from that fossil fuel. The major expected policy outcome of this round of international climate negotiations is the “rulebook” for putting the much-heralded 2015 Paris Agreement into practice. 

As a gathering of heads of state, multinational organizations and civil society, can the UNFCCC and other climate action stakeholders use these arguably esoteric negotiations as a mechanism to engage people in their home countries on climate change? 

The COPs in Traditional and Social Media

In a cyclical, event-driven news cycle, media coverage of climate issues tends to spike during the annual UN COPs. Media coverage is a pathway to public understanding of what is at stake with climate change as a social, economic and political problem. In this way, the UN gatherings serve to push climate change higher up on public agendas around the world. 

UN annual climate change conferences like COP24 in Katowice have the potential to help climate campaigners reach beyond core supporters. For context, the first week of the 2015 COP21 Paris climate talks had the potential reach on social media of a staggering 26 billion potential impressions. 

I have new research out in the open access journal Social Media + Society, co-authored with my colleague Luis Hestres (University of Texas at San Antonio), that shows the UNFCCC used Twitter mostly to discuss procedural matters during COP21 in 2015. 

As our research in Social Media + Society shows, organizations and individuals who care passionately about climate change are not always effective in choosing visuals that can better engage audiences. Scanning through #precop24 posts on Twitter, generated during two days of preparatory UNFCCC meetings held in Krakow, Poland in October, shows an uninspiring stream of pictures of negotiators in suits. 

Researchers at the UK-based organization Climate Outreach have found that visuals documenting unfolding negotiations and protests continued to be widespread in media coverage during the COP22, held in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2016. 
Our research, as well as that from Climate Outreach, points to an underlying challenge for changing the narratives coming out of UN climate conferences. Images from “high-level” sessions, which usually consist of UN officials, along with other dignitaries, and those of protests, provide ready-made content from both traditional media coverage and social media posting. 

Still, with COP24 underway in Katowice, Poland, it is critical that the UNFCCC, NGOs, industry and others use social media to tell human-centered stories about climate impacts and solutions. One place to locate photographs is in Climate Outreach’s database of images, part of their climate visuals project. In addition, they provide recommendations for visualizing climate solutions, impacts and causes.

The “People’s Seat” at the Table

In the lead-up to COP24 in Katowice, the UNFCCC launched a new initiative for public engagement, the People’s Seat, using the Twitter hashtag #TakeYourSeat to encourage individuals to post their comments and multimedia directed at world leaders and negotiators in advance of the summit. In delivering the official campaign launch address at the opening plenary Monday, followed by a video consisting of crowdsourced material, British broadcaster Sir David Attenborough called for action.

“At this crucial moment, the United Nations has invited the world’s people to have their voice heard, by giving them a seat. The People’s Seat; giving everyone the opportunity to join us here today, virtually, and speak directly to you the decision makers,” said Attenborough

In the week before COP24, up to its ceremonial opening Monday, the hashtag #TakeYourSeat, generated 21,625 social media posts, the majority of which were on Twitter. According to the data analytic software Crimson Hexagon these posts had a reach of 220 million potential impressions. Potential impressions is a measure combining the follower counts of social accounts posting on a topic. #TakeYourSeat posts came from 170 countries and territories. The topic five countries for post location were: the United Kingdom (30%), the United States (17%), Australia (7%), Canada (4%) and India (4%). 

As a measure of the clamour to move beyond talk of climate action, the top hashtags people used along with the official campaign #TakeYourSeat one, include #ExtinctionRebellion, #ClimateStrike and #ZeroCarbon2025. 

The Urgency for New Climate Narratives

Given the urgency outlined in the IPCC’s latest report on 1.5°C degrees warming, along with the national reports such as the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, climate stakeholders must do better in relating the issues at stake to everyday life for diverse audiences.

Climate negotiations present national governments, non-governmental organizations, activists and others with a major opportunity to bring attention to the human scale of climate change impacts happening now and to highlight climate solutions. Now is the time to change the narrative. 

This blog post originally appeared on the International Environmental Communication Association’s (IECA) “One Planet Talking” blog.