Written for Common Dreams. Published as At COP and Around the World, We Need Another Safety Check, December 8, 2015.
I’m in Paris, but I haven’t been to the Louvre. I haven’t shopped at the Christmas markets, nor strolled along the Seine.
I am here as a U.S. youth delegate for COP21, the crucial UN climate conference currently underway. Our friends from home think we’re on vacation, but the selfies we’re posting are filled not with smiles or landmarks but politicians and crisis. As the days fly by, we spend our hours in these sterile hallways frantically wondering: what can we do to guarantee our future?
With this always in mind, on Thursday I joined an exclusive meeting with representatives of an unlikely trio of parties: the U.S. State Department, Facebook, and U.S. youth climate activists. The invitation asked us millennials to bring our best ideas to the table. How might Facebook help save the world?
Karen Florini, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change, stood up to tell us that only 52% of U.S. millenials think climate change is a “very serious problem“. Did we have ideas about how to reach the supposed 48% of our friends who happily ignore climate change?
I thought about how peculiar her question was, given the U.S. is one of the only countries at these talks that rarely meets with the over one hundred youth delegates who are so concerned about climate change as to have devoted their lives to be here. I held my hand up high, but didn’t get called on. Here is what I would have said:
When I think about online campaigning, I think about how our audience falls on a spectrum of allies. On one end are our strongest proponents: fellow activists working incredibly hard to advance society toward our goals. They resist fossil fuel infrastructure, run divestment campaigns, launch community renewable energy projects. At the other end is our active opposition, the people here in Paris running bogus conferences on “debunking global warming alarmism”. The vast majority of people are in the middle: they have some feelings about the issue, but don’t often act upon them.
This middle category includes our friends who just don’t care, as well as the hundreds of millions who think climate change is a very serious problem, but don’t know what to do about it. They’ve recycled for years, grown tomatoes on their windowsill, shared endless articles on Facebook, but still mostly feel alone, dissuaded by the somehow surprising lack of societal change accompanying their “environmentally-friendly” lifestyle choices.
I spent the past five months traveling by bicycle to COP21, gathering stories in eleven countries from people who have known this loneliness all too well. My focus was on their chosen therapy: the leap from individual to collective action. Whether sitting in England with Louise Graham, a consultant turned artivist, or in Canada with Lynaya Astephen, an office worker turned anti-pipeline organizer, I heard one thing time and time again. For all of those who have ever felt lost in despair over the state of the world, they first felt hopeful when finding, connecting, and taking action with others feeling the same way.
I often think of social media’s intersection with climate action as slacktivism: mindless petition-clicking, meme-sharing, feel good profile picture-changing. But throughout my journey, I saw social media facilitate real life connections. Everywhere we went, the internet materialized. Twitter became an Icelander in a coffee shop. Webinars became a quilter welcoming us into her home. Facebook became a circle of activists in an office in Oslo. Facebook’s Sustainability Guru, Bill Weihl, spoke to this too: the power of the platform to connect people in every corner of the world. Indeed, his business card reads, “Using the power of friends to make the world more sustainable.”
In just four short days, COP21 will be over. We will probably have an agreement—not an ambitious one, not one setting us on a path to climate justice, but a step zero. We, the 52%, have to build on the signal that the Paris Agreement provides and mobilize. But how do we take the first step? Sitting in the meeting with Facebook, I had an idea.
When Paris was broken open by terrorism right before this conference, many of us who were already here used Facebook Safety Check to let our friends know we were safe. The following day, France declared a state of emergency.
We are in a state of climate emergency. We need another safety check.
I propose Facebook activate a global check on the last day of the talks, one that calls on us 1.9 billion users to commit to climate action. This is a global moment of unprecedented significance for the human species in more ways than one: at no other time in history have we had a communication tool with such potential to bring us together.
After we check in to indicate our commitment, Facebook could show us who else in our city, school, company, or community has done the same, and connect us all to organize a first meeting to make a plan for action in 2016. Facebook actively moving clicktivism into real life for the very first time.
We know that when it comes to climate change, the solutions are already here. We also know that our world leaders alone will not be able to save us. Only people power can rise to this challenge.
This is our moment.