The success of the energy transition will depend in part on what ordinary citizens think about it. How seriously do they take the threat of global warming? Who do they think is responsible for tackling it? How do they react when companies seek dialog online about sustainability issues? Marc Trömel is managing director of opinion research firm VICO, which studies user behavior in social media and uses the insights it derives to help its clients, many of which are large German companies, fine-tune their advertising and customer communications. Together with Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences, the firm recently examined how people in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland talk about climate change on Facebook and Twitter and in online forums and comment sections. The findings were then compared with those of studies conducted in 2003 and 2007.
Judging from their statements online, how do people in German-speaking countries view the future?
Anxiously. Very few people still believe that climate change will never happen. In 2003, by contrast, 98% of statements were about whether climate change exists and whether it’s caused by humans. Today, just 4% are.
This degree of consensus isn’t readily apparent.
That's true but also easy to explain. The online discussion of climate change includes statements in forums like “global warming is getting on my nerves – it’s so hot again today” as well as “what kind of trees should I plant in my yard so they can withstand climate change?” In other words, most people talk about climate change as a given. The forums on major political news sites, by contrast, attract comments from climate-change doubters. This creates a false impression of how many people question the reality of global warming.
What’s on the majority of users’ minds?
Global warming itself as well as its consequences, such as extreme weather and the extinction of species. By contrast, there’s far less discussion about economic repercussions and almost none about poverty, human migration, and other social issues. Indeed, the focus is largely regional, which is another significant change from 2003 and 2007. Back then, people in German-speaking countries were talking about global developments in the distant future. Today, they’re talking about regional effects right now. Human migration in Africa, for example, isn’t mentioned. Even the bush fires in Australia were, compared with Germany’s dry weather, at best a marginal topic of discussion.
Are people also talking about climate change’s causes?
Absolutely, especially about the impact of power generation and transport. Together, these two factors account for just over a quarter of carbon emissions, but online they attract by far the most comments. Households are responsible for 21% of carbon emissions, but online almost no one is concerned about this. The same is true of the emissions that result from the manufacture of the products people buy: they represent the biggest share of carbon emissions but are hardly ever discussed online. There is, however, much more of a focus now on what individuals can do to help. In 2003 and 2007, people felt that governments and companies needed to address the problem because individuals were powerless to change anything. Today, people are more receptive to taking action themselves. They just know very little about where and how to do so.
The internet should be great for finding that out.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, which is one of the climate debate’s biggest problems. With the exception of a few deniers, everyone involved – policymakers, business leaders, and NGOs – has the same objective: to understand exactly what’s happening and to take effective action against climate change. Yet instead of people joining forces and tackling the issue together, they tend to blame each other.
A real exchange of views on the internet is rare. Can anything be done about this?
It’s true that online communication often doesn’t bring people together but instead spurs them to adopt more extreme positions, especially on an issue like climate change. But it helps to realize that there are very different groups of people online and offline who approach the issue from very different perspectives. Our study identified some of these groups, such as activists who are very engaged, people who would like to be engaged but don’t know how, everyday heroes, advocates, fact-checkers, people who are resigned to the inevitability of climate change, and avoiders.
Avoiders presumably don’t want to talk about the issue at all?
Exactly. As soon as the topic of climate change comes up, they tune out. You always have to know who you’re talking to. For example, many of a major German carmaker’s online followers are avoiders and people who are indifferent or resigned. At the moment, however, this company addresses its followers as if they were activists or people who want to be more involved. That’s why its posts on sustainability issues receive 95% negative comments. Nevertheless, it is possible to work constructively with each group. Activists, for example, are open to sitting down and finding joint solutions. The solutions can be passed on to the advocates, who are usually older people who are very active in associations and local councils and therefore have influence. They then make sure that the good ideas become reality.
Is it also possible talk about climate issues with avoiders and people who are resigned?
Yes, but in a different way. Take the example of eMobility. Let’s assume an avoider lives in downtown Stuttgart. His life expectancy is lower because he breathes polluted air. If I encourage him to buy an electric car because it’s good for the climate, he’ll explain to me why electric cars are actually not good for the climate and then add that climate change is a hoax anyway. But if I encourage him to buy an electric car because it will help solve Stuttgart’s air-pollution problem, he may respond more favorably. In other words, you need to know what’s important to each group.
What’s your advice for individuals participating in online discussions?
That there’s little point in trying to convince other people by means of highly emotional comments. Instead, it makes more sense to post a link to a reliable source of information or something that can be verified, such as a physics experiment that can be replicated at home.
And for companies?
That there’s little point in attempting greenwashing because it almost never works. For instance, if a company posts that it has installed thermostats on all heating units in its offices and is thus much more sustainable, someone will inevitably post a comment such as, “Yeah, but what about the emissions at your manufacturing facilities?” It’s a thousand times better for a company to admit that it has a problem and invite people to take part in a discussion about how to solve it. That approach will be received much more positively.