As Earther’s social editor and the youngest person on Gizmodo’s staff, our writers and editors frequently come to me with questions like “What do The Youth want?” and “What is a VSCO girl?” This has put me in a strange position as teens have yeeted themselves to the forefront of climate activism. On the cusp between Millennial and Gen Z, I’m a climate journalist who is sometimes mistaken for a young protestor at events—despite clearly wearing a press badge.
The truth is, I am a young person passionate about the environment, but it’s been a while since I was a teenager, and even I when I was, I wasn’t out on the streets like today’s climate teens. I do, however, understand where they’re coming from with their signs, ways of coping with what’s happening, and deep desire for action. After all, we follow the same TikTok and Instagram accounts.
That’s why I reached out to the person running @climemechange on Instagram. He’s also a young adult working in a climate-relevant field, looking for a way to educate people about the realities of climate change without beating everyone over the head with facts we’ve all heard before. You have to let yourself laugh at the absurdity of what’s going on in the world. If you don’t, where will you find the emotional wherewithal to take action?
“There’s some amazing irony in the fact that we’re squabbling over all this stuff while the world is literally burning around us, and we can’t get anybody to pay attention to it,” he told me over the phone. “You know it’s tragic, but there’s some sort of comedy in it.”
I spoke with @climemechange, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, both before and after last Friday’s climate strike. Our conversation about climate apathy, how teens are cleverer than all of us, and using memes as a tool for advocacy is below, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Emily Lipstein, Earther: So how did you come up with the idea to start the account?
@climemechange: I kept landing on this subject that nobody could make the topic of climate change engaging or appealing to a wide audience. People had tried climate change related comedy and it always came off as either convoluted or condescending. It’s a complicated topic that’s got a lot of boring, mundane science that you have to know in order to wrap your head around it. It’s not exactly fun to learn about energy markets. And then once you wrap your head around climate change—the causes, the problems that it might create—it gets very depressing and anxiety inducing for a lot of people. There is a close tie between comedy and tragedy, and there’s some amazing irony in the fact that we’re squabbling over all this other stuff while the world is literally burning around us, and we can’t get anybody to pay attention to it.
Earther: You convey the hopelessness around some aspects of climate change, and how screwed we are in a lot of ways. But at the same time, you use that to educate people.
@climemechange: I definitely have done more serious stuff in Instagram Stories where I’ll say, “Does anybody have any questions about climate change?” or I’ll do an explainer on a certain topic. I think way back, I did one on the duck curve, which is an important thing to understand about solar energy.
EARTHER: Who do you see as your audience? It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to change the hearts and minds of climate deniers.
@climemechange: I’m not out there trying to do that, even though I know I have a couple of times. But I actually don’t pay much attention to people who are stomping their feet and not paying attention to the science. I think a much bigger problem than climate change denial is apathy or ignorance. [My account is] for getting the people that can say a million more things about the Avengers universe than our own universe, people who just simply don’t know about what’s going on and aren’t thinking about it and making them a little bit more conscious of it.
Earther: So much of that is trying to be relatable to a bunch of people.
@climemechange: Absolutely. You want to get their foot in the door a little bit with something that they can relate to or something that they’re familiar with. It takes me like 20 seconds to make a meme. I just take whatever is trending already on the Internet that day, and I change it slightly to be about climate change.
If you take stuff that people are already looking at, laughing at, and relating to, you can layer this subject over it in a way that makes them just think about it for two seconds while they’re scrolling past another picture of their ex having fun without them. And if you can get them to think [about climate change] for those two seconds, that’s two more seconds than they were thinking about it before. Maybe they’ll even become somebody who’s involved with making change here.
Earther: Do you see this as climate activism or yourself as a climate activist?
@climemechange: I mean, real-life me is all climate change, all the time. Activist is… I don’t know if I define myself as an activist or not, but I do see this as a way to communicate the problem in a way that might get some more people involved. I’ve been working with clean tech businesses and climate policy for quite some time now. I’ve seen how climate change is treated both in terms of how people are looking at the problem, and how people are creating solutions at pretty high levels of business and government. I’ve seen enough that I wanted to find a way to convey some of my learnings in a fun, relatable way to a wide audience.
Earther: It’s really refreshing to see how your memes don’t put a big emphasis on individual choice and instead focus more on systemic issues. I feel like we’re living in this ridiculous time in which a major part of the narrative is like, yeah your plastic straws are going to kill everything versus, you know, focusing on all of the bad things corporations do.
@climemechange: I can’t even count the number of metal straw companies that have asked if they can buy an ad on my page that I’ve said no to because I think it conveys the wrong message. People kind of lose the forest looking at the trees sometimes with this issue, which is what the oil companies want you to be doing so that you ignore the much bigger problems happening at the system level.
Earther: There are other climate-related memers I follow on Instagram that make really great, funny posts. It’s this mix between them being like “save the turtles! plastic straws are bad!” and then realizing climate action goes far beyond just that. I feel like I’ve never seen teenagers do this kind of high-level thinking about climate change en-masse until now.
@climemechange: But individual choice does matter. We all have the individual choice to organize and vote and raise our voices in a way that might move the needle in the right direction. That’s by far the individual choice that if you’re not making, you can’t call yourself someone who cares about this issue. I don’t want to give the corporate world a big hug about the environment because they’re still messing up so much, but you’re starting to see these steps of progress in the right direction that are only happening because they’re fully aware that that will drive returns because they know that Millennials and Gen X and so forth care about these things when they’re choosing a brand or a place to work. We’re more conscious than any other prior generation about companies being socially good. It’s upsetting to see that no action is being taken at the federal level. But on the state level, holy smokes. You’ve got like a dozen or more states at this point that have committed to going zero carbon in a pretty quick timeline. And again: That doesn’t happen without people raising their voices.
Earther: What was it like participating in the climate strike last Friday?
@climemechange: It was beyond moving. To see hundreds of thousands of people out in the street mobilizing for climate action, and just to take a second to think and pause about the fact that the majority of it is being led by young people—some of them literally kids who have taken on this role of becoming adults earlier than they had anticipated to take the lead—was was just so moving.
Earther: You posted on your Instagram Story a few days before the strike asking people to send you pictures of their signs if they used your memes. Did you get any?
@climemechange: It was kind of surreal for me to see how many people were out there referencing something that I had done. There’s definitely a fun spirit that teenagers all have for sure. I think they understand the power of using humor as a way to get people’s attention, their sarcasm as a way to get people’s attention. I mean look at what what Greta Thunberg did with her Twitter bio this week, basically subtweeting Trump after he posted something about her. They’re all so quick and witty, but at the same time again what they’re doing is on a whole other level of really getting people to be serious about this too.
Earther: Were there any signs or memes that you wish you had made that you saw at the climate strike?
@climemechange: There was one that I was like, this joke is better than any joke I’ve ever made. And it was somebody with a sign that said something along the lines of “Save the Planet Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends need a future too.”
Earther: It’s funny that you mention that sign—I saw a mix of people loving it and hating it, being like, I can’t believe people are trivializing climate change in this ridiculous way. But Leonardo DiCaprio’s deep involvement in environmental causes is why it’s such a sophisticated and effective joke.
@climeme: Exactly, hats off to whoever wrote that.
Earther: You’re not a teenager, but you’re doing the internet stuff that teenagers do.
@climemechange: Yeah, I’m in an interesting position. I’m an adult, but I’m not that old. I’m a young person, but I have real practical industry experience that makes me able to relate to both younger and older people. There was one mother who reached out to me saying that she was interested in getting her son to learn about climate change, and that my posts got his foot in the door to learn about it. Then there are students that have [reached out] said that they’ve used them in presentations to their classes, and who said, “hey, what do I do about the fact that my teacher is a climate change denier?” The point of making these easy-to-scroll-through posts is that they can get your attention for two seconds and maybe make you think a little bit more about it. And then in my stories and with other content I try to do the straight up educational stuff to get people to learn about a certain topic surrounding climate.
Earther: What are some other good Instagram accounts, or any other good things you’re seeing on social media that you think people should know about?
@climemechange: Honestly I think the more important thing is to follow the activists, like Greta Thunberg, the Zero Hour people, and Alexandria Villaseñor. There are some youth activists that have been raising their voices and making some amazing changes.
And I think that, as adults, we need to be supporting these youth activists as much as possible. I can’t remember a single person I ever encountered as a teenager who got as well-read and as knowledgeable and as bold as they have. And now these people are like, in the UN and talking to government officials and helping to make change. Whether you’re a young adult like us or an older one, you need to be supporting these people like crazy because they deserve it for having made the sacrifices they’re making, and for having the foresight of what their future could look like [if serious action isn’t taken].