The annual UN climate negotiations, COP24concluded Saturday in Katowice, Poland with an agreement to bring the much heralded 2015 Paris accord to limit global greenhouse emissions into force. There is a stark disconnect between what would be required for nations to ramp up their climate commitments by 2020 and the lower level of public conversation these climate talks garnered.

I attended week one of the talks as an observer participant on the behalf the IECA. If the 2015 Paris climate summit ended with a message of hope and resolve to collectively stem dangerous anthropogenic interference, COP24 underscored the importance of domestic politics for climate policy.

The change in national political contexts on the part of not only the United States but also Brazil was fully apparent. The “Yellow Vests,” or “gilets jaunes,” protests that have rocked France, a key player in advancing global climate action, since mid-November also highlight the critical nature of public support for domestic climate policies and that such policies must include mechanisms to blunt their impact.

#COP24 social media posts word cloud, as generated by Crimson Hexagon.

The deal struck in Katowice will require nations to report both their greenhouse gas emissions and progress towards nationally-determined reductions biennially starting in 2024. For a detailed overview of the key outcomes of COP24, check out reporting from the UK-based CarbonBrief.

“Urgency” could have been the word of this COP, or perhaps, “disillusionment” with a political process that has enabled decades of delay. The world turned away from binding emissions targets with the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Now the emissions gap between what nations are voluntarily pledging to do in terms of emissions reductions and what would be required has caught up with us.   

One thing that strikes me most from attending this COP is that the UNFCCC climate regime process seems designed to allow countries to collectively push decisions further into the future, such as a question of double-counting carbon credits. Yet, delays are not possible now with the increasingly urgent warnings from climate scientists.

Less Hopeful Social Media Conversation than Paris

Now that the Katowice climate conference has concluded I wanted to see how social media about this year’s round of negotiations stacked up against the 2015 Paris climate talks.

In order to answer this question I collected a series of social media conversation streams for the time periods of one day before the start of each COP to one day following their respective conclusion in the data analytic software Crimson Hexagon. Sources I pulled from include: Twitter, YouTube, reddit, blogs, forums, Tumblr and news.

To compare general climate change conversation to that about COP21 and COP24 respectively, I set up five sets of searches:

  1. Climate change general search terms: #climate, #climatechange, “climate change,” “global warming” and #globalwarming. Excluding: COP21, #COP21, #cop21paris, “conference of parties,” #COP24, COP24, #COP24Katowice, #TalanoaDialogue, #Talanoa4Ambition and #TakeYourSeat.
  2. Climate activists search terms: #klimatstrejk, #climatestrike, #keepitintheground, #climatejustice, #climatemarch, #justtransition, #marchCOP24, #climatealarm,  #MarszdlaKlimatu, #MarchaPorElClima, #MarcheClimat and #ExtinctionRebellion.
  3. COP24 search terms: #COP24, COP24, #COP24Katowice, #TalanoaDialogue, #Talanoa4Ambition, #TakeYourSeat and #ParisAgreement (2018 only).
  4. COP21 search terms: #ParisClimateConference, COP21, #COP21, #cop21paris and #ParisAgreement (2015 only).
  5. Search terms for the French “Yellow Vests” protests: “gilets jaunes,” #giletsjaunes and #yellowvests (2018 only).

Not surprisingly given that defining the “rulebook” for the Paris accord implementation was technical and revolves around often complicated details, the volume of COP21 posts vastly outnumbered that of COP24. The Paris climate talks garnered more than 4.7 million posts, the majority of which were on Twitter (94%). On Twitter the 2015 UN climate conference had a reach of a staggering 47 billion total potential impressions, as calculated by the Crimson Hexagon software. In comparison, the COP24 Katowice climate negotiations were discussed in more than one million posts, far less than three years prior, with a still impressive reach on Twitter of 11 billion potential impressions, though down significantly.  

The top Twitter posts for the 2015 and 2018 climate talks indicate a shift in tone from hope to warning of danger. The most retweeted, or amplified, Twitter post about the Paris climate talks came from former U.S. president Barack Obama: “This is huge: Almost every country in the world just signed on to the #ParisAgreement on climate change—thanks to American leadership.”

In contrast, the most retweeted Twitter post of the Katowice talks was from the BBC (@BBCWorld): “We’re facing a man-made disaster of global scale… time is running out” – Sir David Attenborough issues warning at UN Climate Conference #COP24 in Poland” Some of the most retweeted 2018 Twitter posts came from 15-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (see here and here), as well as the Dalai Lama.

The “Yellow Vests” Movement Overshadows COP24

During the Paris climate summit, activists used social media to amplify climate justice and to call for the more ambitious target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) that was included in the final text of the Paris Agreement. Again with this year’s UN climate negotiations, activists seeking in influence the COP agenda and outcome turned to social media to amplify their messages. During COP24 youth activism for radical tactics took center stage within activist social media with school strike for climate and the Extinction Rebellion movement which got its start earlier this year in the United Kingdom.

During COP21, posts mentioning the talks made up nearly two-thirds of conversation as compared to climate change generally. For the more recent climate talks, COP24 made up less than a third of the share of conversation, as compared to climate change generally. For both COPs, climate activists made up 4% of the share of voice.

Overall, social media conversation about COP24 was far overshadowed by the French “Yellow Vests,” or “gilets jaunes,” protests. During the time period of COP24, the “Yellow Vests” were mentioned in more than eight million social posts, with a reach of 40 billion potential impressions, as measured by the Crimson Hexagon software. In terms of post volume, this surpasses the 2015 COP21 conversation; rivaling it in terms of reach. With the “Yellow Vests” conversation added in COP24 made up far less of the social media conversation.

Energy Democracy Means All of Us

The dominance of the “Yellow Vests” conversation on social media as compared to COP24, climate activists and climate change generally over the time period of the UNFCCC summit can be considered a form of what I term “disruptive social media virality” by individuals who collectively perceive themselves as outsiders to decision-making processes on climate policy and who are directly impacted by these same policies.

The “Yellow Vests” movement underscores that energy justice needs to be part of the conversation on climate policy at the national and international levels for lasting systems change. As climate change communicators we need to connect the issues at stake to everyday life in ways that are meaningful. Along with that economic justice as an essential aspect of climate justice has to be part of that dialogue and has to be included in policies for energy sector transformation.

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