Triple Bottom Line: Performance or progress? The case for climate activism

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Mocking Trump on Twitter, sailing across the Atlantic on a carbon neutral boat, heading a worldwide climate strike, speaking at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit — Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has accomplished a lot by the age of 18. She’s undoubtedly the leader of a viral, youth-driven global climate movement. But, what tangible goals has she actually accomplished?

According to Thunberg, the world’s leaders are not doing nearly enough — the scientific evidence and urgency of the rapidly changing climate are negated by unproductive global conferences dominated by high-GDP countries, weakly enforced market-driven policies and reliance on technological advancement to reduce CO2 emissions and global temperature rise. Her plea to representatives at the Climate Action conference in New York went viral, and, for good reason — it was strongly worded, scientifically accurate and called upon the countries of the U.N. to take some accountability in their loose environmental legislation at both an international and domestic level.

Climate activists today, whether they have the global notoriety of Thunberg or simply a following of friends and family, are operating on a different scale than ever before. With the rise of social media and the growing interconnectivity of news and information networks, activists and their actions are constantly scrutinized by a global audience. From filing legal complaints to organizing marches and protests, it’s never been easier for activists to broadcast their actions to the world.

The power to reach hundreds of millions with a single Tweet or Instagram post comes with the consequence of extreme and, often unnecessary, criticism by conservative commentators and politicians, who oftentimes attack climate influencers themselves rather than their demands or actions. Thunberg particularly has been berated for her age, the eco-friendliness of her own lifestyle and the alarmist tone of her messaging, despite the scientific evidence to prove her claims. Just weeks ago, Thunberg made headlines when she hit back at a Chinese media outlet, which she claimed “fat-shamed” her by alluding she was too heavy for someone who claims to be vegetarian. 

Despite the many naysayers, socially prominent environmental activists promote a conversation that needs to be addressed, applying pressure to the public and private sector alike. By promoting their messages and goals through various platforms, this new generation of climate activists and their tech-savvy predecessors can generate a positive feedback loop of engagement and awareness about specific issues and the climate crisis as a whole. 

Thunberg — who currently has an Instagram following of over 11 million and a Twitter following nearing 5 million — regularly engages with fellow environmentalists via social media, sharing information and resharing content from youth activists around the globe. In fact, Fridays for Future, a global school strike for climate action movement, began when Thunberg started sitting outside of the Swedish Parliament on school days, ultimately going viral and inspiring kids around the world to emulate her actions.

Conversely, activism via social media has the potential to be incredibly performative. Online activism itself simply pales in comparison to an in-person speech, march or peaceful confrontation. That being said, while social media can be the catalyst for social and environmental change, the real action takes place away from the screen. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words, and concepts like posting for a cause sometimes cause more harm than good — such as the #BlackOutTuesday movement for Black Lives Matter, which overran the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag with black squares instead of posts with critical info about marches and organizations accepting donations.

Posting a fact-checked infographic, retweeting a well-written news article or sharing an informative TikTok can all be effective ways of spreading information. However, social media is an engagement tool — a mechanism for message spreading that is rapidly gaining traction in every realm of activism. While it spreads the message of climate activists like Thunberg, it’s also an efficient method of broadcasting her offscreen actions, words, and arguments. Hashtags and graphics are merely the building blocks for a more substantial movement, an incentive for social media users to understand the issue and begin thinking about how they can incite change. Activism may begin on social media these days, but the efficacy of any movement is based on action, and social media is just a means of creating momentum to a much greater end. 

While the impact of climate activism isn’t as straightforward as the quantitative follower counts and likes on social media, it has the ability to sway public opinion and create change on a global scale. Effective climate activism creates public awareness, which causes political pressure, forcing change through legislation and, hopefully, compliance. This new generation of activism is not only renowned for its digitally amplified vocalization but the intersectionality and inclusivity that come with accessible social media platforms. Thunberg and her counterparts understand the duality of environmentalism and social equity and justice, weaving a message that addresses both socioeconomic and environmental goals through a lens of global justice.

A school strike or aesthetic infographics may not single-handedly rouse the world’s nations to step it up at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, but perhaps the same is to be said for me spending hours on each installment of this column. Activism, at its purest, is nothing more than a collection of individuals who have all been motivated to incite change in their own way, hoping to build increasing momentum. More often than not, we have good intentions, but it’s important to consider how we can most effectively translate our intentions into action — an example of what not to do is the viral video of celebrities singing a painfully awkward rendition of “Imagine” at the beginning of the pandemic. Were they hoping to inspire us? Incentivize us to stay inside? I really couldn’t tell you, and I don’t think they could either.

All this being said, there’s no one single correct approach to activism or advocacy for change. But, perhaps intentional and effective social media usage will be the secret ingredient we need to educate, inspire and unite individuals around the world to take action and advocate for change.

Montana Denton is a rising senior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society.