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Twitter Is Changing How We Talk About Climate Change

To study climate change, head to the Twittersphere.
(Photo: Joe Lazarus/Flickr)

(Photo: Joe Lazarus/Flickr)

Never underestimate the power of the 140-character tweet: When studied word-by-word, shades and particulars of human sentiment can be unpacked in just a line or two. That includes, it turns out, popular opinions on climate change, and the emotional impacts of global warming. According to new research, Twitter is a mighty tool when it comes to studying our rapidly changing planet.

Between 2008 and 2014, researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide in Australia gathered 1.5 million tweets at random, each containing the word "climate" at least once. Using a tool known as a Hedonometer, which generates a happiness score for a body of text, they analyzed how happy or sad major climate change events—including politically shaded debates, like the Keystone Pipeline—made Twitter users feel, based on the language displayed in their tweets.

"There's such a general consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real, but then in so many other areas it's kind of split, so we were curious to see how Twitter responded to the issue," says Emily Cody, lead author of the study. "It's not necessarily a place where only scientists or only politicians go to display their opinions. It's somewhere everybody can display their opinions."

"When we started looking at the tweets that contain 'global warming,' we saw all of this sarcasm."

So what does the Twittersphere tend to think about climate change? According to the researchers' findings, which were published last week in PLoS One, events like natural disasters, climate bills, and oil-drilling tend to make Twitter users feel more despondent, while climate rallies and book releases boost overall morale. "Words uncovered by our analysis suggest that responses to climate change news are predominately from climate change activists rather than climate change deniers," the authors write in the study, "indicating that Twitter is a valuable resource for the spread of climate change awareness."

Many Twitter users also frequently associate climate change with natural disasters. "During Hurricane Irene, for example, the word 'threat' was used much more often within climate tweets," the authors write, "suggesting that climate change may be perceived as a bigger threat than the hurricane itself." And after Hurricane Sandy's landfall on the East Coast in October 2012—one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina—tweets analyzed through the Hedonometer revealed that Twitter users subsequently experienced one of the most morose months surrounding climate change discussion. While previous studies have shown how often the day's weather—and not long-term atmospheric trends—can shape beliefs in climate change, Twitter could be a valuable tool used to strengthen public acceptance of climate-related natural disasters, the researchers found.

Diction patterns on Twitter reveal interesting insights into climate change beliefs. Both climate change deniers and believers favor their own hashtags: #globalwarming and #climatechange, respectively. While tweets using terms like "climate change" are more likely to include language that garners a positive response on the Hedonometer, like "sea," "oceans," and "nature," Twitter users who prefer to tweet about "global warming" are more likely to use negative words such as "fraud," "politicians," and "blame" in their tweets as well.

"When we started looking at the tweets that contain 'global warming,' we saw all of this sarcasm," Cody says. "You don't see the words 'crisis' and 'battle' as much. Someone would tweet something like, 'Oh it's negative ten degrees in Burlington, Vermont today #globalwarming' because they're being sarcastic."

Although research supports that humans are nearly 100 percent responsible for our warming planet, just 49 percent of climate change believers agree that humans should be held accountable for global warming and climate change, past studies have shown. So that's where Twitter comes in. As social media continues to replace more traditional news outlets, Twitter could be key in studying and shaping the cultural politics of climate change, in ways that newspapers and broadcast television no longer can.