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date: 22 May 2017

Digitally-Mediated Advocacy and Climate Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The past two decades have transformed how interest groups, social movement organizations, and individuals engage in collective action. Meanwhile, the climate change advocacy landscape, previously dominated by well-established environmental organizations, now accommodates new ones focused exclusively on this issue. What binds these closely related trends is the rapid diffusion of communication technologies like the Internet and portable devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Before the diffusion of digital and mobile technologies, collective action, whether channeled through interest groups or social movement organizations, consisted of amassing and expending resources—money, staff, time, etc.—on behalf of a cause via top-down organizations. These resource expenditures often took the form of elite persuasion: media outreach, policy and scientific expertise, legal action, and lobbying.

But broad diffusion of digital technologies has enabled alternatives to this model to flourish. While some scholars argue that digital communication technologies have simply made the collective action process faster and more cost-effective for organizations, others argue that these technologies now allow individuals to eschew traditional advocacy groups and rely instead on digital platforms to self-organize. Still others have emphasized the emergence of new political organizations whose scope and influence would not be possible without digital technologies.

Journalism has also felt the impact of technological diffusion. Within networked environments, digital news platforms are reconfiguring traditional news production, giving rise to new paradigms of journalism. At the same time, climate change and related issues are increasingly becoming the backdrop to news stories on topics as varied as politics and international relations, science and the environment, economics and inequality, and popular culture.

Digital communication technologies have significantly reduced the barriers for collective action—a trend that, in many cases, has meant a reduced role for traditional brick-and-mortar advocacy organizations and their preferred strategies. This trend is already changing the types of advocacy efforts that reach decision makers, which may help determine the policies that they are willing to consider and adopt on a range of issues—including climate change.

Widespread adoption of digital media has fueled broad changes in both collective action and climate change advocacy. Both trends have paralleled each other through much of this period, eventually converging in the late 2000s. Three examples of advocacy organizations and campaigns embody this trend: 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and The Guardian’s “Keep It in The Ground” campaign. Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, and several of his former students from Middlebury College in Vermont, co-founded 350.org in 2007. The Climate Reality project was founded under another name by former Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore. The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is a partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, was launched in March 2015, at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. The future of climate advocacy in light of ongoing technological innovation has consequences for meaningful action to tackle climate change.