Memo to Climate Scientists: Tweet, Or Not Tweet? … And HOW?

Should climate scientists and climate communicators be tweeting? Can they afford not to?

Twitter is no platform for the Leo Tolstoys out there. But those who know how to punch out an idea in 140 characters can help influence thousands of followers’ attitudes, one tweet at a time. That seems to work in these crazy times.

In theory, and over time, tweets change attitudes and ideas. But all people with Twitter accounts can tailor their climate tweets to their specific audiences, their followers. A Twitter home page resembles a news ticker, like a lightning-fast version of the old wire service ticker machines, going out to your specialized audience. There’s so much to read: Twitter followers must sift through the sand to find the gold nuggets.

Is it worth it to do all that heavy lifting and sifting? And, is it worth it for climate scientists, serious writers and thinkers, officials, or ordinary citizens to take time every day — ideally many times per day — and tweet about climate change?

Of all the electronic ways of communicating out there now, Twitter is one of the easiest to use, and easiest to abuse. It’s easy to paste the shortened link to “yourfavorite.com” or tap out a quick line that you are right then sitting in a bar watching a show about polar bears enduring glacier melt or coral reefs suffering from ocean acidification.

Based on a deliberative, but admittedly unscientific, review of climate tweets over the past several months, those who would inspire the public to care about carbon policies or energy consumption trends could do better.

A study recently came out suggesting that all of the emphasis on reducing carbon dioxide has been overstated, and that instead we ought to be reducing methane and black carbon or soot emissions. But the tweets on this study weren’t that jarring. Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin tweeted, “A new paper in Science argues curbing soot and methane is more urgent and achievable than cutting CO2.” New York Times Dotearth blogger Andrew Revkin tweeted, “New finding on cutting methane & soot http://j.mp/wtD4Nf builds on Jim Hansen’s work in 2000: http://j.mp/wW25HR http://j.mp/zlbimH.”

Do Smart People Fall Flat When Tweeting?

It’s fair to wonder if those tweets, limited as they must be by space constraints, risk understating a potentially far more significant study.

Many tweets by some of the smartest climate thinkers in fact fall flat, while zingly tweets on energy policies might be fun to read but may not seem relevant to most of us. Again, it’s fair to ask: Perhaps smart people don’t necessarily tweet well.

Some of them so obviously detest tweeting that you can pick it up in their posts. The most comfortable climate tweeters seem to use the tweets for dialogue with their climate enemies, perhaps leaving their closer followers rolling their eyes.

Consider some possible guidelines for safe and effective climate change tweeting:

  • Post a polite tweet urging someone to learn more, and your followers will keep scrolling down.
  • If you throw cyber punches, in some cases, thousands will crowd around to see. As P.T. Barnum said, if you want to draw a crowd … start a fight.
  • Unless someone’s losing a job over hacked e-mails, climate change remains the ultimate un-sexy topic.
  • On the other hand, Twitter might be a place where any exposure is good publicity.
  • With no national climate policy, Twitter could bring the climate debate out of the nerdy sidelines.

Categories of Tweets on Climate Change

Inconspicuous climate tweets

These tweets point to good sources, yes. As tweets, though, they don’t leave an idea with you — you have to click on the link, and even then, it will take some time to figure it out. So query just how much these tweets actually succeed in furthering climate knowledge.

From the Pew Center, now C2ES:
“Do you have any questions about Climate Change? Check out the Pew Center’s Climate Change 101 series http://ow.ly/6SH31″

From reliantenergy:
A real homeowner on #InnovationAvenue speaks about his personal experience with smart energy http://twitpic.com/6yuhiq”

From climate writer/activist Bill McKibben:
The Economist, blunt, and right: climate change the biggest issue of the century.

From the writer Marc Gunther:
A mixed review: 2011 wasn’t as bad a year for US #climate policy as you might think, sez @WRIClimate | http://bit.ly/sjBQVg

Exciting Tweets

These keep the ideas moving. These tweets are either so provocative or so self-contained that they leave you thinking about them and wanting to know more. That’s what can help bring the climate debate into living rooms.

Examples of exciting tweets:

From ecoRI News:
“Whew! We can finally blame climate change on China! http://ht.ly/6UkCF.”

From Raffi (the children’s musician), this re-tweet:
“KIDS SUE GOVERNMENT OVER CLIMATE CHANGE bit.ly/uoyUbp”

From Marc Gunther:
“Speak out, preachers! A preach-in on global warming Feb 10-12 bit.ly/ADu4Pp #climate.”

Provocative Tweets

These have the potential to grab us right away. The only downside of these tweets is that sometimes the tweeters sound cyncial or appear to address only someone they’re arguing with. Others don’t necessarily feel part of the dialogue. But these pass the test for getting us thinking.

From peak oil missionary and energy investor Chris Nelder (nelderini on Twitter):
“If the estimates in this report on methane plumes in the Arctic http://ind.pn/rVRWHG are correct, we are well and truly [screwed] folks.”

David Fleshler, South Florida Sun-Sentinel environment reporter: ”Conmen: Fake Economist Ben Stein Sues Company for Discriminating Against Global Warming Deniers — @Gawker gawker.com/5875615.”

From TreeHugger.com: ”The U.S.Chamber of Commerce advocates burning enough fossil fuels to ruin civilization as we know it. Not helpful! http://bit.ly/wkcq9w.”

From Scientific American environment and energy editor David Biello: ”Here’s how to really know we’re not serious about climate change, not even willing to do things that save lives, $$$ bit.ly/wWIajI”

Steve Maley, the conservative energy blogger, to peak-oil futurist Chris Nelder:
“@nelderini Sure would like to see you back up your assertion that #natgas reserves were consciously understated for most of the 20th Cent.”

Tweets. Love them or hate them. For climate scientists and climate communications professionals, the old “Field of Dreams” test may apply:  If you build it, will they come? Depending on the audience they’re trying to reach, the answer may not lie in stuffy peer-reviewed journals or scholarly footnote-heavy white papers. The answer may lie instead in the allure of 140-character tweets. Think about it.

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a freelance writer living in Deep River, Connecticut. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: christine@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @chriswoodside)
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