Climate Influencers and the Politics of Attention

A young Xicana activists stands in front of a banner surrounded by a crowd.

From the earliest rounds of global climate negotiations three decades ago, young people have been active participants, raising their voices and pointing out the intergenerational injustice of climate change. Severn Cullis-Suzuki, twelve at the time of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, gave her famous speech at the gathering that called on adult decisionmakers to prioritize the rights of young people and future generations. Since 2009, young people have even had a formal constituency within the U.N. climate negotiations process—YOUNGO—which is meant to represent global youth in a policy process whose consequences span generations.

Transnational youth climate movements which coordinate in-person and online have grown rapidly in both scope and visibility in the past half decade. Fridays for Future, which organizes the school strikes for climate which have taken place in over 125 countries, is undoubtedly the best known of these global networks. Searching the hashtag #FridaysForFuture on Twitter reveals a multifarious and geographically expansive movement, despite mainstream media coverage often reducing this broad wave of activism into individual figures such as Greta Thunberg. Traditional media’s emphasis on individual narratives of heroism creates a mistaken impression that climate activism is isolated to or concentrated in the Global North.

Growing youth movements around climate change have resulted in more opportunities for certain youth organizers to engage in high-level climate policy discussions. Activists involved with Fridays for Future, generally of a younger age and different generation than those engaged with YOUNGO for the last decade plus, are now increasingly involved in the U.N. climate arena alongside the constituency.

A group of young people in professional clothes celebrate around a sign.
YOUNGO activists work together to have their voices heard at the COP25 UN conference. Photo by UNClimateChange, 2019.

Meanwhile, in the broader milieu, an emerging cadre of climate “influencers”—individuals who produce multimedia content about climate change for social media platforms—have garnered substantial followings. To visualize the scale, simply type in the hashtag #climatechange on the social media app TikTok and you’ll see reams of short video content with nearly 3 billion aggregate views.

I come to this work as someone who has been an organizer and activist in student and youth movements surrounding labor and workers’ rights and environmental and climate justice for nearly a decade now. My experiences as an undergraduate student organizer ultimately led me to become a scholar-activist to better understand the histories, possibilities, and contemporary landscape of youth movement building.

Through methods including ethnographic fieldwork at U.N. meetings, interviews with about 50 youth activists from 30 countries, and digital storytelling approaches, my PhD research characterized the various pathways to influence that youth activists are creating in adult-dominated institutions and on social media. My dissertation also describes how youth movements are dealing with the uneven impacts of climate change by centering the voices of those most affected and contesting dominant media representations which frame climate change as a future issue. As I watched youth movements become more visible and talked about, I began to attend to the dynamics of internet celebrity which were starting to become an integral feature of these movements and their public image.

The Politics of Attention

Taken together, the growth of youth movements, celebrity of certain youth leaders, and increasing cultural discussion of climate change on social media suggests the need to take seriously and critically examine the climate politics unfolding across what sociologist Zeynep Tufekci calls the “digitally-networked public sphere.” In the book Twitter and Tear Gas, Tufekci reflects on how activists and movements navigate this sphere on social media platforms. With movement hashtags that travel widely, and the capacities of regular people to create viral content with just a smartphone in hand, online and offline politics intermesh in new and significant ways in this media ecosystem.

The attention of social media and the benefits derived for youth movements were spreading in a dramatically uneven fashion across the emerging transnational networks.

Tufekci’s book illustrates the importance of turning critical attention to attention itself. Understood as a resource, it becomes possible to look at how attention is distributed, who does and does not have access to it, and the extent to which social media platforms change that equation. Climate activists, movements, and influencers alike are all seeking attention, whether that be public attention which pressures a government or institution towards adopting climate justice policies or the attention which elevates an internet personality into a profitable and recognizable brand.

Social media platforms provide novel and powerful pathways for young people to obtain attention for their movements and moments alike. In my interview with four youth activists involved with Fridays for Future’s Most Affected Peoples and Areas (MAPA) constituency, they described how social media had provided a space to link together their climate activism in their home contexts of Balochistan, Mexico, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. These platforms have also created a means to devise digital campaigns to highlight their regions’ struggles to a transnational audience, a useful tool in pressuring local and national decisionmakers.

These affordances are a critical part of the story of social media and movements and speak to how movements can strategically capitalize on organized moments of “digital disruption.” The offline and the online have a new proximity in the institutional politics of many contemporary issues. Youth movements recognize this nexus as an important terrain of political influence. After all, this is a moment in which “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans” are credited with successfully embarrassing former President Trump by creating the illusion of a significant turnout for a campaign rally via clever digital organizing.

Tactics of digital disruption, encompassing humor, satire, drama, and other genres of performance, now form critical elements in the repertoires of youth climate movements. The Sunrise Movement, a U.S. youth climate organization perhaps best known for propelling the notion of the Green New Deal into the national spotlight, specializes in this type of digital disruption, dramatizing moments of generational dissensus on the topic of climate on social media. One such moment occurred when Senator Dianne Feinstein dismissed a group of young people affiliated with the Bay Area organization Youth vs. Apocalypse and Sunrise Movement. The incident was widely shared on social media and picked up on major news outlets, including Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Coverage of the incident cast activists in a generally sympathetic light while Senator Feinstein figured as an out of touch gerontocrat.

This type of buzz, while possibly appearing less consequential than legislation, is an important part of shifting the politics of the possible over time. In a context shaped by climate movements’ digital disruption, productive ideas can take flight and go viral. As Leah Thomas, author of The Intersectional Environmentalist, states in describing the origins of her book: “Take it from me: I truly didn’t think one post on social media—one small moment of resistance—would catapult intersectional environmentalism into existence and allow me to dedicate my life to environmental education.”

But, as I began to identify during my Ph.D research with youth climate movements, the attention of social media and the benefits derived for youth movements were spreading in a dramatically uneven fashion across the emerging transnational networks. While many activists from the most impacted regions were unable to attend U.N. meetings altogether, some of the influencers newly invited to U.N. events to share space with A-list celebrities seemed to me to have little connection to grounded activist movements for climate justice. For institutions like the U.N., this emergent intergenerational politics looked to be quickly morphing into a celebrity-driven populism bound together by the common currency of status and recognition, breathing new vitality into a set of arcane processes and, dare I say, making them appear the cool place to be.  

Racism, Youthwashing, and Erasing the Present

Shifting critical attention to attention itself, I was left wondering: which children and young people in this sprawling transnational movement network were being noticed, and who was being erased or actively unwritten from the global collage of youth climate activism?

Youth activists sit on chairs in a public square.
A Sunrise Movement Hunger Strike, Washington, D.C. Photo by author, 2021.

It quickly became clear that, despite the opportunities social media platforms engender for transnational organizing, the flow of attention in these digital worlds is shaped by dimensions of race, class, gender, ability, and geography among other factors. The attention contemporary youth climate movements have managed to magnetize and translate into increased presence in institutional climate politics carries its own exclusions.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than at the annual United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) climate negotiations. The annual COP meetings comprise far more than the technical or political negotiations alone. COPs are defined by performative interventions, protests engulfing conference halls and host cities, political theater and drama, and all manner of counter-meetings and negotiations staged to represent alternatives to politics-as-usual.

As Fridays for Future climate and environmental activist Disha Ravi points out in a piece for Al Jazeera, COPs are inherently exclusive and exclusionary events: “COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, was an event where less than .0004 percent of the global population met to negotiate our lives.” Ravi notes the restrictive visa issuances, global vaccine inequities, and media’s erasure of Global South activists as key issues shaping both the attendance of COP as well as its public image and reception.

Beyond the difficulties in even making it to the costly summits, youth participation in multilateral, liberal institutions like the U.N. is circumscribed by dominant imaginaries of global childhood and youth citizenship, contributing to what Laura Bullon-Cassis calls the “structural (in)visibility of BIPOC youths in global climate summits.” Building on Rebekah Sheldon’s book The Child to Come, my research shows how enduring representations of certain children and young people as “the future” shape political and emotional responses to climate change. Adults script youth climate activists through particular narratives, often as figures of hope and inspiration. Many youth activists who take part in climate negotiation events feel tokenized, like part of a “youthwashing” scheme, and not listened to. These representations also contribute to the ways certain (primarily white) youth activists are lauded by adult decisionmakers as representing the voice of the future, the moral conscience of tomorrow, while having constrained political influence in the present. Many youth activists point to the extractive and disempowering nature of this dynamic, a quality parodied in the meme below:

Spatial Attention Deficits and Climate Reparations

Geographical unevenness, neocolonial relations, and persistent emphases on “white childrens’ futures” rather than “Black, Brown and Indigenous childrens’ presents” combine to make COP and the institutional politics of climate change it represents a space in which “the reality of the climate situation in the Global South is blurred,” in Ravi’s words. She calls for framings of climate change, and material politics of climate, which prioritize the “Global South’s present.”

Similarly, pointing to the dynamics of media erasure, the Indigenous & Environmental Rights Defender Helena Gualinga tweeted the following in reference to the coverage of protests at the Glasgow COP 26 climate negotiations last November: “Honestly, so disappointed at media. The Amazonian youth from Brazil and Ecuador lead the entire march today in Glasgow and were up on the main stage for almost 30 minutes. Frontline people at the FRONT LINE. Yet no coverage. This is what invisibilization looks like. #COP26.” The issue of invisibilization is persistent. Even when youth from MAPA do participate in institutional climate politics their participation is often erased. Ugandan youth climate activist Vanessa Nakate has been cropped out of media pool photos featuring herself alongside white youth climate activists on several occasions, an experience of mediated erasure she writes about in her book A Bigger Picture.

Interrogating and resisting such spatial attention deficits is a critical part of building transnational and intergenerational solidarity for climate justice in the context of this social media ecosystem. The reality is that while certain youth activists are celebrated and lauded with international platforms, others are criminalized, incarcerated, and killed. Media depictions of climate crisis and youth activism grounded in senses of whiteness as futurity—the “Global North’s future” rather than the “Global South’s present,” to quote Ravi—serve to reinforce geographies in which certain places and people exist as sacrifice zones. The youth climate activists that I interviewed told me that in their home countries and territories of the Philippines, Balochistan, Bangladesh and Mexico, activists and frontline environmental defenders are being branded as “terrorists” and detained, disappeared, and murdered as a result.

A group of high schoolers hold signs and march to protest climate policy.
The San Francisco Youth Climate Strike took to the streets to voice their concerns. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2019.

International youth networks such as Fridays for Future through its MAPA constituency are beginning to address these spatial attention deficits and the broader patterns of what Olufemi Táíwò terms “global racial empire” in his book Reconsidering Reparations. The campaign hashtags associated with Fridays for Future’s most recent marches—#UprootTheSystem, #PeopleNotProfit—speak to an intersectional and transnational climate movement which locates the long roots of climate crisis in histories of racial capitalism, colonialism, and extractivism. MAPA youth activists such as Mitzi Jonelle Tan are calling for climate reparations “for the historical injustices rooted in colonialism, profit-oriented plunder and planetary degradation that has led to the climate crisis.” Climate reparations, as Olúfémi Táíwò argues, must involve “no less than the reordering of the globe” in ways which move against intensifying “eco-apartheid.”

As the media attention surrounding youth climate activism seems poised to continue growing, and institutions like the U.N. seek ways to more meaningfully involve young people, it is critical to consider what messages and experiences are being highlighted, which experiences are being erased or excluded,  and what opportunities exist to build coalitions of accountability that meaningfully embody principles of climate justice grounded in the perspectives of those most impacted by climate change. In short, climate justice demands grounding individual concerns and platforms in broader senses of obligation to particular communities. This, I hope, will lead to critically thinking about how to use and move the attention that having such platforms generates, even if this means in some cases falling back in some cases to platform others with messages from the frontlines of climate injustice. Those who are benefitting from climate celebrity must be conscious of the structural conditions which enable it, and that attention is finite, unevenly distributed, and, at worst, a mechanism through which systemic injustice can reinforce itself.

Featured image: Youth activists at the COP22 UN climate talks hold an impromptu press conference following the election of Trump in 2016. Photo by John Englart, 2016.

Mark Ortiz (he/him) is a scholar-activist and President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at The Pennsylvania State University. He obtained a PhD in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2022 and completed undergraduate studies at the University of Alabama in 2015. His research interests include transnational youth movements, the intergenerational politics of climate change, and youth popular and social media cultures. He is a Leadership Team Member of the North Carolina Climate Justice Collective and has worked with numerous youth and intergenerational climate justice organizations. Website. Twitter. Contact.