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Influencing the Influencers

"Recruit celebrities, influencers and cultural figures. They attract attention and have large followings. Recruit athletes, actors, rock stars, CEOs, and YouTube and Instagram influencers to promote your message. Think Lady Gaga on LGBTQ+ rights, Leonardo DiCaprio on climate, John Legend on criminal justice reform."
DAVID FENTON

In the digital age, influencers play a big role in how people think and feel about the climate crisis, and whether they act on it. Influencers’ vast platforms — often reaching millions of followers — allow them to share information, shape public opinion, and inspire action, often on a global scale. When celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Emma Watson and Jane Fonda advocate for policy change, they not only raise awareness but legitimize them in the public eye. Influencers and celebrities have the power to bridge the gap between the science community and mainstream, by communicating in accessible and relatable ways. By using their personal stories and experiences, they can motivate individual behavior change as well as engagement in activism.

Joel Bach

Executive Director
The YEARS Project

Influencing Change

We have come to understand that when communicating the climate issue to either a specific audience or the general public, quality storytelling and messaging do matter — but distribution matters more. It doesn’t matter how good your content is if no one sees it. To overcome this problem and counter the ever-shifting social media algorithms, we have created a multi-pronged distribution model: employ paid ads to reach specific eyeballs, share our work broadly among the climate community, and build a network of climate-minded influencers. Our initiative The Network has 155 members and a combined social media reach of more than 500 million people. Each week we disseminate the most pressing climate messages, tweets, videos and other posts to The Network, so its members can then share that information with their followers.

The strategy has been wildly successful, with the vast majority of our members opening the emails and reviewing the content each week, and an equally large percentage sharing what they see on their social channels. Our goal is to double the size of The Network each year and create a distribution machine that, at low cost, will be able to reach billions of people with actions, messages and content to save our struggling planet. We will also use this powerful tool to continually reinforce our central message — that it is not the job of the individual to stop the climate crisis. Rather, it is the job of companies, institutions and governments. The job of the individual is to remind companies, institutions and governments of this fact.

To help make this communications goal a reality, we recently partnered with Academy Award-winning director and producer, Adam McKay, whose credits include Don’t Look Up and Succession. Once we merge his list of influencers with ours, we will be even better positioned to amplify our work and his and, most importantly, be better able to lift up the critically important challenges and successes of the broader climate movement.

Figure 131: The Network project dissemination materials. Source: The Network Project.

The use of role models and influencers is particularly effective in engaging people in climate change issues. While scientists and governments provide climate change facts and proposed policies, it will be down to influencers to amplify those facts - for example, celebrities, social influencers, faith-based organizations, NGOs, business, news media and hyperlocal actors. Sometimes a tradeoff will need to be made between trusted messengers and messengers with high reach, even if they are generally trusted less. These groups include, for example, celebrities, national political leaders, and news media.1 Involving faith communities was a crucial component in the success of COVID-19 Collaborative, and they are increasingly recognized as a key player in the climate space, too. 

Relatable role models are especially crucial when communicating with younger audiences, who often feel that their friends lack interest in climate change.2 The role of influencers is receiving a lot of academic interest, such as the University of Sheffield’s use of virtual influencers for public attitude and behavior change through creative communications,3 which holds potential to prevent misinformation frequently spread by real influencers. The digital landscape has recently shifted from large-scale influencers to micro-influencers (with a following of between 1,000 and 100,000), who enjoy greater credibility with their audience as they tend to focus on niche areas. Sixty-one percent of US consumers perceive those influencer communities as more trustworthy than brands.4

Sam Bentley

Sustainability Content Creator
|

Good News, Planet Earth

I’m a social media content creator and an advocate for sustainability and positive change, who has been working in social media for over a decade at the forefront of social video. I create videos that showcase the good news and solutions that are moving us towards a more sustainable future. My goal is to inform, educate and inspire others to take action by sharing stories that may not have been widely reported, as well as to amplify the voices of changemakers working tirelessly to create a better future for us all. I do this through my social channels, predominantly Instagram and TikTok, that have a combined following of 1.8 million followers. I grew my following through posting consistent, digestible, high quality content that's tailored to social media.

Whilst my content reaches a wide range of demographics, there are a couple of key demographics I notice that are particularly engaged with it. The first of those is people in the education space, whether it’s a teacher looking for easy-to-understand resources to share in their classroom, parents looking for hopeful stories to share with their children, or students looking for guidance or topics to introduce in their studies. The second is those new to sustainability but eager to learn more. My content may be people’s first point of contact with sustainability issues, and my intention with it is to be a much-needed stepping stone for viewers to dive deeper into any topic that resonates with them.

My climate communication approach is particularly effective because I prioritize digestible and relatable content, both textually and visually. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to designing social video, prioritizing video clips that best tell the story, hooking the watcher within the first 5 seconds. Many find the language used in the sustainable space inaccessible in many cases and don’t feel they can have a seat at the table. I familiarize viewers with popular phrases or words used in the climate and sustainability space. So they feel more comfortable being part of important conversations surrounding environmental topics. Sustainability jargon often feels alienating, so I help viewers understand it, promoting more inclusive environmental dialogues. Coming from outside the sustainability field allows me to bridge the gap between data and public understanding. I hope I can be an important intersection between the two.

I believe it’s important to present climate wins and solutions, as they are vastly under-represented in the media. For people to see others, like them, taking action and making tangible change is far more empowering than being told about climate disasters over and over again. Over time, people just become numb and disengaged, and we cannot afford at this point in time to have a population of beings who are disassociating with the very serious realities we are facing.

Every single person can be part of positive change and help create a better future for the next generations. We just need to equip them with the right tools to make that change.

Figure 132:  Sam Bentley's Instagram and TikTok videos.

Research on influential figures throughout history by MIT showed that while politicians and writers were two of the most represented groups in the nineteenth century, there have been massive shifts following the rise of television and the internet. Footballers, actors and other celebrities have now taken scientists’ place as the most influential voices - which means we urgently need them on board to communicate the climate message.5

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In 2016, UN Climate Change introduced the Sports for Climate Action initiative, inviting sports organizations and stakeholders to unite in combating climate change and promoting a low carbon economy. The campaign encourages organizations to commit to climate neutrality to inspire action beyond the sports sector. Participants are asked to adhere to five core principles and collaborate to spotlight climate solutions, with UN Climate Change facilitating and tracking their progress. Signatories are expected to establish climate action strategies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and commit to specific goals of halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2040. By adopting these ambitious yet attainable targets, the sports industry can position itself as a driving force in climate action and contribute to the global Race to Zero campaign.6

CASE STUDY:

Climate Stripes on the Pitch 

English football club Reading FC made headlines in January 2023 after wearing climate stripes on their sleeves during a Premier League game. The Climate Stripes were originally designed by University of Reading’s professor Ed Hawkins - each stripe represents annual average temperatures from 1850 until 2022. Shades of blue indicate cooler than average temperatures, while red stripes stand for hotter than average years. The design was explained by the game’s lead commentator to an audience of more than two million people in the first half of the game, and was retweeted by professionals around the world.7

Figure 135: Climate stripes used in sports. Credit: JasonPIX.

As social influencers start engaging in climate communication, authenticity will be of utmost importance. By sharing their personal stories and experiences related to the climate crisis, they can create a sense of connection and inspire their audiences to take action. This approach not only helps to build trust between the messenger and their audience, but also emphasizes the personal relevance and urgency of climate issues. 

A study by Unilever and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) found that people are more likely to take up sustainable habits if they see them on social media — which was found to be more influential than TV documentaries and government campaigns. Branded content was seen as just as engaging, authentic and informative as unbranded content. Especially for young people, social media is a great way to authentically connect on sustainability issues, with 75% of GenZers prioritizing sustainability over brand name. Across generations, people are willing to spend at least 10% more for a sustainable product.8  Another study from Belgium confirms that following environmental influencers increases pro-environmental intentions, which spill over into offline behavior. The positive effects of influencers do not stop at eco-friendly behaviors — their content can present a “gateway” for followers, eventually leading to real-life political participation and engagement.9

Isaias Hernandez

Environmental Educator & Creator
|
Queer Brown Vegan

Climate influencers have a problem

Eco-influencers or climate influencers represent a niche within the creator economy of various activist communities focusing primarily on communications work. Much like my work on QueerBrownVegan,10 they use a mix of video, photo, or illustrations to drive their missions and organizations — albeit with a social or ecological foundation. Many climate influencers have created organizations and are running their platforms based on their existing work or careers — including youth climate activists. Much of the eco-influencer11 landscape is communication work that orients around awareness, which is a precursor to action — which stands in stark contrast with social media at large, which is designed to maximize screen time.

Many influencers, myself included, share and promote product ads due to a need for more funding models to sustain our work. For myself, advertising or promotional agreements support my work, fund my team, and support my family. The role of an eco-influencer has changed from one individual telling you about more sustainable products to varying layers of entrepreneurship, storytelling, and thought leadership. The majority of my work focuses on working with academic institutions to communicate climate science, implementing climate education programs at museums across the states, and creating curriculum-based environmental justice courses with non-profits. However, this work is typically behind the scenes and not publicized.

Climate influencers deal with a lot of criticism from inside the movement, labeling them as individualist — I disagree with this notion. Coming from a frontline community, I began my environmental justice work by doing language translation in high school. When we make blanket statements like, “online activism isn’t real activism,” that can contribute to erasing people’s work — including those who are disabled and immunocompromised from COVID-19, for whom engaging in physical spaces means compromising their safety.


However, there are power imbalances in how online activism is now valued higher than offline activism. Grassroots organizers and organizations have highly relevant data and case studies showcasing how injustices were fought and what was demanded. Social media commonly limits the visibility of those stories and solutions, especially with a bias toward short-form content. This is why those who continue to practice local grassroots activism must also be elevated to share the real-world examples and work being done on campaigns to create change.

Our issue is not climate influencers, but dominant influencer culture. I am conscious that by upholding it to an extent, I am a part of that problem. The creator economy thrives on the commodification of the individual communities, leading to people being put on pedestals — and the environmental movement isn’t exempt from human ego. What climate influencers can commit to is developing long-term marketing strategies that provide support for grassroots organizations and activists to elevate their voices.

Climate influencers present a unique opportunity of building grassroots and independent media that focuses on justice, equity, and ethics. But we can do a better job of amplifying grassroots movements. Building an ethical social media system must ensure that resources and investment are directed to the right places, and that those doing the important groundwork are amplified alongside influencers.

But influencers can also become part of the problem, as an investigation by DeSmog found recently. Oil and gas companies such as Shell and BP have been working with influencers in the UK to improve their image and provide misleading solutions to the climate crisis. These strategies aim to emotionally connect with millennials and counter their negative perceptions. DeSmog's research found that over 100 influencers globally had been paid to endorse fossil fuel companies since 2017 — reaching billions of people (see Climate Misinformation).12  

The consequences of these partnerships are concerning, with promotional content from PR firms working for Shell claiming that their campaigns made audiences more likely to view Shell as an advocate for cleaner energy solutions.64 While influencers hold the power to promote climate action and sustainability, their reach comes with a responsibility to not abuse their audience’s trust to greenwash polluting companies.

Such digital tactics have been on the rise, especially when major polluters aim to overshadow negative press regarding their profits and contributions to climate change. For instance, BP's internal documents from 2020 revealed their strategy to engage influencers to resonate with and gain trust from younger generations.12 Shell — who have backtracked on their climate commitments after announcing record profits13 — have also been active in the influencer market.12

CASE STUDY:

How Coldplay Helped Protect the Amazon Rainforest

In 2019, the Amazon rainforest experienced over 30,000 fires driven by deforestation and climate change — threatening ecosystems, communities, and its status as the “lungs of our planet”. In response to these challenges, the rock band Coldplay, as long-standing advocates of Global Citizen, harnessed their influence in 2021 to motivate action against rapid deforestation and climate change. The band reached out to government leaders of eight Brazilian states via Twitter, inspiring thousands to rally Coldplay, Global Citizen and environmental organizations, urging Brazilian governments to safeguard this vital ecosystem. As a result, six out of eight states — including areas notorious for deforestation — committed to ambitious emissions reductions and the protection of over 1.7 million hectares of forest, benefitting both the environment and Indigenous communities. These commitments demonstrate the power of influential figures like Coldplay in driving global change.14

Figure 138: Coldplay's efforts in helping protect the Amazon Rainforest.

Social media influencers are a force to be reckoned with, and an underutilized group of spokespeople in the climate community. Some groups are starting to recognize their power to deliver impactful messages — for example, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative’s network of Treat Champions features a number of activist influencers, as well as celebrities like Emma Watson and pop band SOFI TUKKER.15 With their wide reach, influencers can help amplify key messages, make climate a personal issue for a greater number of people, and instil a sense of urgency. But as other groups of spokespeople, they need support in discerning between genuine calls for climate action and greenwashing, as well as advice on effective lines of messaging — as evidenced in the recent controversies around influencer marketing for fossil fuels or fast fashion companies. Authenticity, transparency and integrity will be key in reaching and mobilizing new audiences — but our efforts will require not only influencers and key spokespeople, but all of us.

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next up

All Hands on Deck

The power to inspire, drive change, and make a difference is within each of us. Regardless of our profession, every job has the potential to become a climate job. Over the last few years, we've witnessed the transformative potential of determined individuals and successful campaigns. Now, it's time to use our unique skills and superpowers to push for impactful changes to tackle the climate crisis.

Keep reading
Contributors in this section
Joel Bach
The YEARS Project
Sam Bentley
Isaias Hernandez
Queer Brown Vegan
see all whitepaper contributors
notes
  1. Ad Council. The Ad Council and COVID Collaborative Reveal ‘It’s Up To You’ Campaigns to Educate Millions of Americans about COVID-19 Vaccines. Ad Council Org. Published 2021. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.adcouncil.org/Press-Releases/the-ad-council-and-covid-collaborative-reveal-its-up-to-you-campaigns-to-educate-millions-of-americans-about-covid-19-vaccines
  2. Global Action Plan. Supercharging Climate Conversations among Young People: A Guide for Media.; 2022. https://www.globalactionplan.org.uk/files/climate_conversation_guide_-_media_virgin_media_o2_gap_research.pdf
  3. University of Sheffield. Tackling climate change using creative communication (digital character). University of Sheffield | Behavioural Research for Inclusivity, Sustainability and Technological Transformation. Published May 5, 2022. Accessed August 2, 2023. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/bristt/research/research-projects/tackling-climate-change-using-creative-communication-digital-character
  4. Accenture. Accenture Life Trends 2023.; 2022. https://www.accenture.com/content/dam/accenture/final/capabilities/song/marketing-transformation/document/Accenture-Life-Trends-2023-Full-Report.pdf#zoom=40
  5. MIT Media Lab. Project Overview - Pantheon. MIT Media Lab. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/pantheon-new/overview/
  6. United Nations Climate Change. UN Climate Change Global Innovation Hub COP 27 Event Report. U N. Published online 2023. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/UGIH_COP27_Event_Report_FINAL_2023.pdf
  7. Earnshaw J. Reading grab headlines with kit stripes explanation on national television. Reading Chronicle. Published January 30, 2023. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.readingchronicle.co.uk/sport/23285477.reading-fc-grab-headlines-climate-change-stripes-explained-tie/
  8. Wheless E. Gen Z marketing—everything brands need to know about reaching young consumers. Ad Age. Published July 18, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://adage.com/article/marketing-news-strategy/gen-z-marketing-everything-brands-need-know-about-reaching-young-consumers/2504646
  9. Dekoninck H, Schmuck D. The Mobilizing Power of Influencers for Pro-Environmental Behavior Intentions and Political Participation. Environ Commun. 2022;16(4):458-472. doi:10.1080/17524032.2022.2027801
  10. Hernandez I. Home. Queer Brown Vegan. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://queerbrownvegan.com/
  11. Feller M. Can Instagram Influencers Help Save the Planet? ELLE. Published January 23, 2020. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a30629637/sustainable-influencers-instagram-climate-crisis/
  12. Dimitriadis D, Grostern J, Bright S. Revealed: Fossil Fuel Giants Are Using British Influencers to go Viral. DeSmog. Published July 27, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.desmog.com/2023/07/27/fossil-fuel-oil-gas-giants-shell-bp-using-british-influencers-to-go-viral/
  13. Limb L. Shell joins BP and Total in U-turning on climate pledges ‘to reward shareholders.’ euronews. Published June 15, 2023. Accessed August 29, 2023. https://www.euronews.com/green/2023/06/15/shell-joins-bp-and-total-in-u-turning-on-climate-pledges-to-reward-shareholders
  14. May C. How Coldplay Urged 6 Brazilian States to Protect the Amazon and Defend the Planet at ‘Global Citizen Live.’ Global Citizen. Published April 22, 2022. Accessed August 4, 2023. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/global-citizen-coldplay-brazil-amazon-case-study/
  15. Fossil Fuel Treaty. Treaty Champions. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. Accessed August 29, 2023. https://fossilfueltreaty.org/champions

Figure 133: The End of Plastic Packaging (Source: Sam Bentley)

Figure 137: The problem with climate influencers (Source: Queer Brown Vegan)

In the digital age, influencers play a big role in how people think and feel about the climate crisis, and whether they act on it. Influencers’ vast platforms — often reaching millions of followers — allow them to share information, shape public opinion, and inspire action, often on a global scale. When celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Emma Watson and Jane Fonda advocate for policy change, they not only raise awareness but legitimize them in the public eye. Influencers and celebrities have the power to bridge the gap between the science community and mainstream, by communicating in accessible and relatable ways. By using their personal stories and experiences, they can motivate individual behavior change as well as engagement in activism.

Joel Bach

Executive Director
|
The YEARS Project

Influencing Change

We have come to understand that when communicating the climate issue to either a specific audience or the general public, quality storytelling and messaging do matter — but distribution matters more. It doesn’t matter how good your content is if no one sees it. To overcome this problem and counter the ever-shifting social media algorithms, we have created a multi-pronged distribution model: employ paid ads to reach specific eyeballs, share our work broadly among the climate community, and build a network of climate-minded influencers. Our initiative The Network has 155 members and a combined social media reach of more than 500 million people. Each week we disseminate the most pressing climate messages, tweets, videos and other posts to The Network, so its members can then share that information with their followers.

The strategy has been wildly successful, with the vast majority of our members opening the emails and reviewing the content each week, and an equally large percentage sharing what they see on their social channels. Our goal is to double the size of The Network each year and create a distribution machine that, at low cost, will be able to reach billions of people with actions, messages and content to save our struggling planet. We will also use this powerful tool to continually reinforce our central message — that it is not the job of the individual to stop the climate crisis. Rather, it is the job of companies, institutions and governments. The job of the individual is to remind companies, institutions and governments of this fact.

To help make this communications goal a reality, we recently partnered with Academy Award-winning director and producer, Adam McKay, whose credits include Don’t Look Up and Succession. Once we merge his list of influencers with ours, we will be even better positioned to amplify our work and his and, most importantly, be better able to lift up the critically important challenges and successes of the broader climate movement.

Figure 131: The Network project dissemination materials. Source: The Network Project.

The use of role models and influencers is particularly effective in engaging people in climate change issues. While scientists and governments provide climate change facts and proposed policies, it will be down to influencers to amplify those facts - for example, celebrities, social influencers, faith-based organizations, NGOs, business, news media and hyperlocal actors. Sometimes a tradeoff will need to be made between trusted messengers and messengers with high reach, even if they are generally trusted less. These groups include, for example, celebrities, national political leaders, and news media.1 Involving faith communities was a crucial component in the success of COVID-19 Collaborative, and they are increasingly recognized as a key player in the climate space, too. 

Relatable role models are especially crucial when communicating with younger audiences, who often feel that their friends lack interest in climate change.2 The role of influencers is receiving a lot of academic interest, such as the University of Sheffield’s use of virtual influencers for public attitude and behavior change through creative communications,3 which holds potential to prevent misinformation frequently spread by real influencers. The digital landscape has recently shifted from large-scale influencers to micro-influencers (with a following of between 1,000 and 100,000), who enjoy greater credibility with their audience as they tend to focus on niche areas. Sixty-one percent of US consumers perceive those influencer communities as more trustworthy than brands.4

Sam Bentley

Sustainability Content Creator
|

Good News, Planet Earth

I’m a social media content creator and an advocate for sustainability and positive change, who has been working in social media for over a decade at the forefront of social video. I create videos that showcase the good news and solutions that are moving us towards a more sustainable future. My goal is to inform, educate and inspire others to take action by sharing stories that may not have been widely reported, as well as to amplify the voices of changemakers working tirelessly to create a better future for us all. I do this through my social channels, predominantly Instagram and TikTok, that have a combined following of 1.8 million followers. I grew my following through posting consistent, digestible, high quality content that's tailored to social media.

Whilst my content reaches a wide range of demographics, there are a couple of key demographics I notice that are particularly engaged with it. The first of those is people in the education space, whether it’s a teacher looking for easy-to-understand resources to share in their classroom, parents looking for hopeful stories to share with their children, or students looking for guidance or topics to introduce in their studies. The second is those new to sustainability but eager to learn more. My content may be people’s first point of contact with sustainability issues, and my intention with it is to be a much-needed stepping stone for viewers to dive deeper into any topic that resonates with them.

My climate communication approach is particularly effective because I prioritize digestible and relatable content, both textually and visually. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to designing social video, prioritizing video clips that best tell the story, hooking the watcher within the first 5 seconds. Many find the language used in the sustainable space inaccessible in many cases and don’t feel they can have a seat at the table. I familiarize viewers with popular phrases or words used in the climate and sustainability space. So they feel more comfortable being part of important conversations surrounding environmental topics. Sustainability jargon often feels alienating, so I help viewers understand it, promoting more inclusive environmental dialogues. Coming from outside the sustainability field allows me to bridge the gap between data and public understanding. I hope I can be an important intersection between the two.

I believe it’s important to present climate wins and solutions, as they are vastly under-represented in the media. For people to see others, like them, taking action and making tangible change is far more empowering than being told about climate disasters over and over again. Over time, people just become numb and disengaged, and we cannot afford at this point in time to have a population of beings who are disassociating with the very serious realities we are facing.

Every single person can be part of positive change and help create a better future for the next generations. We just need to equip them with the right tools to make that change.

Figure 132:  Sam Bentley's Instagram and TikTok videos.

Research on influential figures throughout history by MIT showed that while politicians and writers were two of the most represented groups in the nineteenth century, there have been massive shifts following the rise of television and the internet. Footballers, actors and other celebrities have now taken scientists’ place as the most influential voices - which means we urgently need them on board to communicate the climate message.5

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In 2016, UN Climate Change introduced the Sports for Climate Action initiative, inviting sports organizations and stakeholders to unite in combating climate change and promoting a low carbon economy. The campaign encourages organizations to commit to climate neutrality to inspire action beyond the sports sector. Participants are asked to adhere to five core principles and collaborate to spotlight climate solutions, with UN Climate Change facilitating and tracking their progress. Signatories are expected to establish climate action strategies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and commit to specific goals of halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2040. By adopting these ambitious yet attainable targets, the sports industry can position itself as a driving force in climate action and contribute to the global Race to Zero campaign.6

CASE STUDY:

Climate Stripes on the Pitch 

English football club Reading FC made headlines in January 2023 after wearing climate stripes on their sleeves during a Premier League game. The Climate Stripes were originally designed by University of Reading’s professor Ed Hawkins - each stripe represents annual average temperatures from 1850 until 2022. Shades of blue indicate cooler than average temperatures, while red stripes stand for hotter than average years. The design was explained by the game’s lead commentator to an audience of more than two million people in the first half of the game, and was retweeted by professionals around the world.7

Figure 135: Climate stripes used in sports. Credit: JasonPIX.

As social influencers start engaging in climate communication, authenticity will be of utmost importance. By sharing their personal stories and experiences related to the climate crisis, they can create a sense of connection and inspire their audiences to take action. This approach not only helps to build trust between the messenger and their audience, but also emphasizes the personal relevance and urgency of climate issues. 

A study by Unilever and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) found that people are more likely to take up sustainable habits if they see them on social media — which was found to be more influential than TV documentaries and government campaigns. Branded content was seen as just as engaging, authentic and informative as unbranded content. Especially for young people, social media is a great way to authentically connect on sustainability issues, with 75% of GenZers prioritizing sustainability over brand name. Across generations, people are willing to spend at least 10% more for a sustainable product.8  Another study from Belgium confirms that following environmental influencers increases pro-environmental intentions, which spill over into offline behavior. The positive effects of influencers do not stop at eco-friendly behaviors — their content can present a “gateway” for followers, eventually leading to real-life political participation and engagement.9

Isaias Hernandez

Environmental Educator & Creator
|
Queer Brown Vegan

Climate influencers have a problem

Eco-influencers or climate influencers represent a niche within the creator economy of various activist communities focusing primarily on communications work. Much like my work on QueerBrownVegan,10 they use a mix of video, photo, or illustrations to drive their missions and organizations — albeit with a social or ecological foundation. Many climate influencers have created organizations and are running their platforms based on their existing work or careers — including youth climate activists. Much of the eco-influencer11 landscape is communication work that orients around awareness, which is a precursor to action — which stands in stark contrast with social media at large, which is designed to maximize screen time.

Many influencers, myself included, share and promote product ads due to a need for more funding models to sustain our work. For myself, advertising or promotional agreements support my work, fund my team, and support my family. The role of an eco-influencer has changed from one individual telling you about more sustainable products to varying layers of entrepreneurship, storytelling, and thought leadership. The majority of my work focuses on working with academic institutions to communicate climate science, implementing climate education programs at museums across the states, and creating curriculum-based environmental justice courses with non-profits. However, this work is typically behind the scenes and not publicized.

Climate influencers deal with a lot of criticism from inside the movement, labeling them as individualist — I disagree with this notion. Coming from a frontline community, I began my environmental justice work by doing language translation in high school. When we make blanket statements like, “online activism isn’t real activism,” that can contribute to erasing people’s work — including those who are disabled and immunocompromised from COVID-19, for whom engaging in physical spaces means compromising their safety.


However, there are power imbalances in how online activism is now valued higher than offline activism. Grassroots organizers and organizations have highly relevant data and case studies showcasing how injustices were fought and what was demanded. Social media commonly limits the visibility of those stories and solutions, especially with a bias toward short-form content. This is why those who continue to practice local grassroots activism must also be elevated to share the real-world examples and work being done on campaigns to create change.

Our issue is not climate influencers, but dominant influencer culture. I am conscious that by upholding it to an extent, I am a part of that problem. The creator economy thrives on the commodification of the individual communities, leading to people being put on pedestals — and the environmental movement isn’t exempt from human ego. What climate influencers can commit to is developing long-term marketing strategies that provide support for grassroots organizations and activists to elevate their voices.

Climate influencers present a unique opportunity of building grassroots and independent media that focuses on justice, equity, and ethics. But we can do a better job of amplifying grassroots movements. Building an ethical social media system must ensure that resources and investment are directed to the right places, and that those doing the important groundwork are amplified alongside influencers.

But influencers can also become part of the problem, as an investigation by DeSmog found recently. Oil and gas companies such as Shell and BP have been working with influencers in the UK to improve their image and provide misleading solutions to the climate crisis. These strategies aim to emotionally connect with millennials and counter their negative perceptions. DeSmog's research found that over 100 influencers globally had been paid to endorse fossil fuel companies since 2017 — reaching billions of people (see Climate Misinformation).12  

The consequences of these partnerships are concerning, with promotional content from PR firms working for Shell claiming that their campaigns made audiences more likely to view Shell as an advocate for cleaner energy solutions.64 While influencers hold the power to promote climate action and sustainability, their reach comes with a responsibility to not abuse their audience’s trust to greenwash polluting companies.

Such digital tactics have been on the rise, especially when major polluters aim to overshadow negative press regarding their profits and contributions to climate change. For instance, BP's internal documents from 2020 revealed their strategy to engage influencers to resonate with and gain trust from younger generations.12 Shell — who have backtracked on their climate commitments after announcing record profits13 — have also been active in the influencer market.12

CASE STUDY:

How Coldplay Helped Protect the Amazon Rainforest

In 2019, the Amazon rainforest experienced over 30,000 fires driven by deforestation and climate change — threatening ecosystems, communities, and its status as the “lungs of our planet”. In response to these challenges, the rock band Coldplay, as long-standing advocates of Global Citizen, harnessed their influence in 2021 to motivate action against rapid deforestation and climate change. The band reached out to government leaders of eight Brazilian states via Twitter, inspiring thousands to rally Coldplay, Global Citizen and environmental organizations, urging Brazilian governments to safeguard this vital ecosystem. As a result, six out of eight states — including areas notorious for deforestation — committed to ambitious emissions reductions and the protection of over 1.7 million hectares of forest, benefitting both the environment and Indigenous communities. These commitments demonstrate the power of influential figures like Coldplay in driving global change.14

Figure 138: Coldplay's efforts in helping protect the Amazon Rainforest.

Social media influencers are a force to be reckoned with, and an underutilized group of spokespeople in the climate community. Some groups are starting to recognize their power to deliver impactful messages — for example, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative’s network of Treat Champions features a number of activist influencers, as well as celebrities like Emma Watson and pop band SOFI TUKKER.15 With their wide reach, influencers can help amplify key messages, make climate a personal issue for a greater number of people, and instil a sense of urgency. But as other groups of spokespeople, they need support in discerning between genuine calls for climate action and greenwashing, as well as advice on effective lines of messaging — as evidenced in the recent controversies around influencer marketing for fossil fuels or fast fashion companies. Authenticity, transparency and integrity will be key in reaching and mobilizing new audiences — but our efforts will require not only influencers and key spokespeople, but all of us.

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Figure 133: The End of Plastic Packaging (Source: Sam Bentley)

Figure 137: The problem with climate influencers (Source: Queer Brown Vegan)

Contributors in this section
Joel Bach
The YEARS Project
Sam Bentley
Isaias Hernandez
Queer Brown Vegan
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All Hands on Deck

The power to inspire, drive change, and make a difference is within each of us. Regardless of our profession, every job has the potential to become a climate job. Over the last few years, we've witnessed the transformative potential of determined individuals and successful campaigns. Now, it's time to use our unique skills and superpowers to push for impactful changes to tackle the climate crisis.

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notes
  1. Ad Council. The Ad Council and COVID Collaborative Reveal ‘It’s Up To You’ Campaigns to Educate Millions of Americans about COVID-19 Vaccines. Ad Council Org. Published 2021. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.adcouncil.org/Press-Releases/the-ad-council-and-covid-collaborative-reveal-its-up-to-you-campaigns-to-educate-millions-of-americans-about-covid-19-vaccines
  2. Global Action Plan. Supercharging Climate Conversations among Young People: A Guide for Media.; 2022. https://www.globalactionplan.org.uk/files/climate_conversation_guide_-_media_virgin_media_o2_gap_research.pdf
  3. University of Sheffield. Tackling climate change using creative communication (digital character). University of Sheffield | Behavioural Research for Inclusivity, Sustainability and Technological Transformation. Published May 5, 2022. Accessed August 2, 2023. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/bristt/research/research-projects/tackling-climate-change-using-creative-communication-digital-character
  4. Accenture. Accenture Life Trends 2023.; 2022. https://www.accenture.com/content/dam/accenture/final/capabilities/song/marketing-transformation/document/Accenture-Life-Trends-2023-Full-Report.pdf#zoom=40
  5. MIT Media Lab. Project Overview - Pantheon. MIT Media Lab. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/pantheon-new/overview/
  6. United Nations Climate Change. UN Climate Change Global Innovation Hub COP 27 Event Report. U N. Published online 2023. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/UGIH_COP27_Event_Report_FINAL_2023.pdf
  7. Earnshaw J. Reading grab headlines with kit stripes explanation on national television. Reading Chronicle. Published January 30, 2023. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.readingchronicle.co.uk/sport/23285477.reading-fc-grab-headlines-climate-change-stripes-explained-tie/
  8. Wheless E. Gen Z marketing—everything brands need to know about reaching young consumers. Ad Age. Published July 18, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://adage.com/article/marketing-news-strategy/gen-z-marketing-everything-brands-need-know-about-reaching-young-consumers/2504646
  9. Dekoninck H, Schmuck D. The Mobilizing Power of Influencers for Pro-Environmental Behavior Intentions and Political Participation. Environ Commun. 2022;16(4):458-472. doi:10.1080/17524032.2022.2027801
  10. Hernandez I. Home. Queer Brown Vegan. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://queerbrownvegan.com/
  11. Feller M. Can Instagram Influencers Help Save the Planet? ELLE. Published January 23, 2020. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a30629637/sustainable-influencers-instagram-climate-crisis/
  12. Dimitriadis D, Grostern J, Bright S. Revealed: Fossil Fuel Giants Are Using British Influencers to go Viral. DeSmog. Published July 27, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.desmog.com/2023/07/27/fossil-fuel-oil-gas-giants-shell-bp-using-british-influencers-to-go-viral/
  13. Limb L. Shell joins BP and Total in U-turning on climate pledges ‘to reward shareholders.’ euronews. Published June 15, 2023. Accessed August 29, 2023. https://www.euronews.com/green/2023/06/15/shell-joins-bp-and-total-in-u-turning-on-climate-pledges-to-reward-shareholders
  14. May C. How Coldplay Urged 6 Brazilian States to Protect the Amazon and Defend the Planet at ‘Global Citizen Live.’ Global Citizen. Published April 22, 2022. Accessed August 4, 2023. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/global-citizen-coldplay-brazil-amazon-case-study/
  15. Fossil Fuel Treaty. Treaty Champions. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. Accessed August 29, 2023. https://fossilfueltreaty.org/champions