How Al Gore is using social media to try to change the conversation on climate change

Climate change has a serious communication problem. Will Al Gore be the one to help fix it?

A picture of Al Gore speaking at Google earlier this year.

A picture of Al Gore speaking at Google earlier this year.

These two lines of thought simultaneously ran through my head as I dialed into a phone interview last week with the former Vice President, who earlier that week had confirmed that he once tried unsuccessfully to buy Twitter and merge it with Current TV (first reported in Nick Bilton’s book). Naturally Gore and his team behind environmental social media effort The Climate Reality Project had an agenda for the interview: to tell me about their third annual 24 Hours of Reality, a live online broadcast that kicks off this Tuesday and which over a 24-hour-period will showcase the local effects of extreme weather and carbon pollution across six continents.

Gore, who’s as congenial as he is media-trained in a phone interview on the topic of climate change, launched the first of these online broadcast efforts back in 2011. He tells me that the second one last year brought in 16 million viewers, with an average of almost an hour of viewing time per person. This year he says he expects the third event will “far exceed those numbers.”

What’s promising

On one hand, the 24 Hours of Reality and The Climate Reality Project is exactly what the climate change issue needs. The effects of global warming have been notoriously hard to communicate for many reasons, including that carbon pollution isn’t visible, that a lot of questions remain about the effects of carbon emissions on the planet, and that the entire subject is quite polarizing, at least in the U.S. (example A, the inevitable trolling that will happen in the comment section of this post).

Specifically the 24 Hours of Reality is looking to focus the conversation around the effects of extreme weather, a relatively new way to position the discussion given the world has been seeing an increasing amount of extreme weather ever year. “The most persuasive voice has been Mother Nature,” Gore told me. “Extreme weather has captured the attention of the world.”

Getty Images

Super Storm Sandy, Getty Images

Many point to superstorm Sandy as one of the first times that a growing mainstream U.S.-based discussion emerged around the connection between extreme weather, climate change and carbon pollution. Right after the storm, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.” If you tune into the broadcast on Tuesday, expect to see segments on the expensive cleanup process of the East Coast storm.

The broadcast is also an effort to localize content, moving climate change from the problems of polar bears to showcasing the everyday effects of major storms, floods and water and food shortages in cities, towns and villages near you. Because, of course, personalizing the issue is probably one of the best ways to drive it home.

The Climate Reality Project is relying heavily on social media and new media to craft its message, recruit participants and bring in viewers. It’s one way to attract, and galvanize, young viewers, and it’s also a way to make the project interactive. Alongside the broadcast, The Climate Reality Project is launching a Carbon Tab, where viewers can calculate the cost of carbon in their daily lives.

Gore told me that they’re embracing online and social media partly because it has a lower barrier to entry than working with traditional media, which he said have mostly fallen down on the job of covering climate change. Online and social media is also displacing traditional media in many ways, so there’s no reason why his group shouldn’t be at the forefront of the discussion, said Gore, who helped sell his new media network Current TV to Al Jazeera earlier this year (and reportedly made $70 million off the deal).

What’s polarizing

The Climate Reality Project and the 24 Hours of Reality, however, face the same problem that other organizations fighting this same battle face: how much of this is just about preaching to the choir. Are there actually people who previously don’t know much about climate change — or better yet are skeptical — that would tune in to a broadcast led by Al Gore and then change their minds?

I asked Gore that question and he said he’s actually been seeing a steady flow of people moving from the questioning camp into the taking-the-issue-seriously camp. “The polling indicates this,” he said, and people who have tuned into the broadcast in the past aren’t just young people, Gore insisted. I really hope this turns out to be true.

What the climate change issue needs is a way to discuss the topic that isn’t polarizing. Unfortunately Gore himself is one of the more polarizing figures politically, which at the end of the day could make anything associated with him polarizing, too.

I’ll be tuning into the 24 Hours of Reality broadcast, which kicks off at 11AM PST on Tuesday in the U.S. and runs over the 22nd and the 23rd. I’ll be looking for examples of ways they are broadening the conversation and hopefully bringing in new viewers outside of the obvious young, liberal activist demographic.