The activist behind your favourite climate crisis meme page has some advice
@climemechange sounds off on the loss of RBG, how the future of the planet is literally riding on the result of the US election, and an important message for climate doomers.
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“We're literally dying!” says the bio of an Instagram account we’ve been spending a lot of time lurking on recently. @climemechange started in 2018, just before Greta Thunberg began her school strikes, before Sunrise Movement did their famous sit-ins, before we saw massive mobilisations for climate crisis action. “Before all that, I was really feeling like almost nobody was getting the message out to a wide audience about climate change in an engaging way,” the anonymous creator and curator behind the climate crisis meme page tells i-D. “It's the biggest issue of our time, yet because it's simultaneously complex and depressing, many people tune out.”
With real world credentials in the world of environmental science, they decided to bridge the gap and attempt to put integral information about the climate crisis and how to solve it out there in an engaging way. Two years on and almost 100k followers later (including AOC and Greta Thunberg, no less), even Greenpeace are reposting their content. Their Labor Day Weekend 2020 moodboard was bleak but funny; an image of the beloved This Is Fine dog sipping his coffee as the orange Californian skies burn over him ruled because, well, we are all him; and of course WAP (weatherisation assistance program) memes bred more WAP memes. Chuck in references to Seinfeld, cult 90s movie Dazed and Confused, and an incredibly niche Matchbox Twenty lyric and you seem to have yourself a winning formula.
Impressed and intrigued, we reached out to the person behind the page to reflect on its success, get their hot take on the US election, explain what exactly RBG's death means for the climate crisis and much more...
Do you remember your very first climeme?
Yes, it was just a clip from Game of Thrones. Jon Snow asks, "How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is coming to kill them all?" Tyrion replies, "People's minds aren't made for problems that large." That was just my inner dialogue at the time. Off and running from there.
Why do you think what you do has connected with so many people?
If I were to guess, I think I have three good ingredients going for me. The humour is one part -- I'd been making dumb memes for my friends for years before I started this. The second is that I have actual real world credentials of knowing what's causing climate change and how we can solve it. But the third is the most important, and will also make me sound a bit corny, but I've always had a love of teaching and an eagerness to explain possibly-complicated matters in ways that anyone can understand, without dumbing it down or sugarcoating anything.
So put that all together, and then face the following realities: the basics of what's-causing-climate-change-and-how-we-solve-it are, in fact, not that basic; and fundamental facts around climate change are hard to explain to an audience of people with little background; and usually if you are able to teach someone about climate change, you end up giving them all sorts of anxieties so the outcome isn't all that fun. So if you can thread the needle of providing real knowledge through the cramped ephemerality of an instagram post, and do it in a way that's "fun" without minimising the real pain the world is in, you're now singing a tune people haven't heard before. Then there are some other important secondary ingredients. Maybe the most important of those is that I'm not dogmatic -- the internet is filled with people who will tell you, "if we just go vegan we can solve climate change!" and get a million views on something that's not only false but also erases the concept of nuance at a time that we badly need it.
Tell me about the decisions that go into creating/curating your memes…
I take existing memes and change them a little bit to be about climate change. That's usually the whole thing.
The election is a major focus of your content right now. From interactions you’ve had with followers, do you think people realise how critical the outcome is for the future of the planet?
I don't think there are enough people who realise that a Biden administration and Democrat majority will do wonders for climate, and are arguably the make-or-break for hitting critical emissions targets by 2030, meaning real lives are at stake. It's understandably confusing, because Biden wasn't the strongest climate candidate in the primary, and some big name Democrats have been weak on climate most of their careers. But there are some times you need to put the past in the past, and also realise the alternatives we're faced with. Biden's climate policy plan is a good plan that will put us on the right path to decarbonise, and the alternative is a Trump administration whose deregulations will add 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That means: vote for Biden like the world depends on it, even if you don't like him, because only two people can be president in 2021, and only one of them plans to take climate change seriously. Lives will be saved.
It scares the shit out of me that people don't understand this. It scares me more than climate change deniers do -- those people were unfortunately brainwashed by whatever weird blogs and YouTube videos, but they actually represent a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. Majorities of left and right leaning people in the US want climate action now. The persisting problem is the folks who, when faced with an electoral choice between someone who has a legitimate climate plan and someone who doesn't, do the mental gymnastics to decide the person who cares about climate change isn't "good enough" and thinks they're accomplishing something by not voting. Please don't be that person. Vote for Biden, and if you don't like him, we can protest him together starting in January if we're lucky.
What does the loss of RBG mean for the fight against climate change?
Of course, it's devastating, especially when you consider the likelihood that meaningful climate policy would get killed or stalled in the legislative branch, so we'll need to turn to executive action if we ever get a serious human as the executive, but those executive actions are subject to being struck down by the judiciary branch, which just lost its most brilliant mind. Boom, Civics 101. But we're possibly about to get an extreme-right supreme court, which might strike down climate actions by the EPA, DOE and other executive orders, not just in a possible Biden administration but for decades to come. That's a big deal. We will see how things fall in terms of a new person getting confirmed, and whether the court is expanded in future years.
What message do you have for “climate doomers" who believe that we've already passed the tipping point and that there's nothing we can do?
Every fraction of a degree of warming that we avoid has an immense, gargantuan, impossible-to-overstate large impact on countless real human lives. The problem is that people think in binaries sometimes. It's not like the only two choices are "we're doomed" or "things are good" -- that's the wrong mental framework. There's in fact an infinite spectrum of outcomes between the best case scenario of a fossil fuel-less closed-loop regenerative socially-just society, and the worst case scenario of mass extinction. So yes, we've baked in quite a bit of unavoidable sea level rise, droughts, and fires, and that fact gives me more pain than I'll go into here.
But it's also true that things can get much worse, and some things can also get much better. We can wake up every day and choose to pull the levers to make things as good as we can given the circumstances. Our true power isn't in going zero-waste and vegan at home and never flying again, although that's good for the planet, but our much greater power is in voting, organizing, putting our dollars in ethical places and making our voices heard when it comes to what our future should look like. I actually think Gen Z understands this more than my Millennial generation does, but I hope as a general matter that people under 35 show up in this election because the future of our planet truly depends on it.
What makes you feel hopeful?
The solutions to climate change EXIST!!! We have abundant and cheap renewable energy, clean transport options, innovation in sustainable agriculture, etc. The technology is in our hands today. It's not like a disease where we don't have the cure. It's more like a disease in which we're wilfully choosing to not take the required medicine because oil and gas shareholders will lose money if we do. As soon as we realise how wacky that is, we have all the tools to get out of this mess. I believe we will, despite our present garbage leadership.
It’s good that we can laugh at the state of the world, right?
Sort of! Right now in Houston where there's severe flooding from a tropical storm, people are losing their homes and 100,000 gallons of wastewater were spilled, nobody is laughing. But if I can use humour to get more people to pay attention, I'll keep at it.