Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Public Interest in Climate Change Reaches and All-Time High. Greta Thunberg Conquers the Memesphere

Greta Thunberg is having a phenomenal success as
 climate messenger. Good targeting, flawless performance, the right person at the right moment.

A little more than one year ago, I wrote a post titled "Why, in a Few Years, Nobody Will be Talking About Climate Change Anymore." It turned out that I was completely wrong: Greta Thunberg changed everything. My mistake was the typical one we all make when we try to predict the future. As I tend to say, "the surest way to make wrong predictions is to extrapolate past trends." And I fell into the trap myself!

Look at what happened: the interest of the public in climate change had been fading for years and then, suddenly, it started rising. Now it is the highest level ever reached in the Google Trend record.

Isn't that fantastic? The Greta Thunberg meme, alone, changed the worldwide trend. There is no other explanation for the restarting interest in climate.

So, what's happening? Let's see if we can learn something from my wrong prediction. First of all, I based my prediction on the data from Google Trends that showed a constant and robust decline of the public's interest in climate change. It had been ongoing for more than a decade and it seemed logical to me that it would continue to do so. I noted also how the Trump government was practicing the propaganda technique known as "deception by omission." It seemed to be successful in generating a self-reinforcing feedback that led the public to forget about climate change, distracted by other issues.

Then, bang! Complex systems always take you by surprise and Greta Thunberg surely surprised everybody. What made her so successful in a task where the best scientists in the world had failed? The birth and the development of the Thunberg meme will be studied for years to come: it is truly a remarkable innovation in a memesphere where, so far, only negative memes seemed to have a chance to affect the public opinion (Climategate is an example). Surely, Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.

At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called "experts" on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.

But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!

Again, we should have expected that: the memesphere behaves very much like complex physical systems, it undergoes phase transitions. If you ever worked with this kind of systems, you surely noted how phase transitions occur, or do not occur, mostly when they please. If the conditions are not right, the chemical compound that took you months of work to synthesize will refuse to condense and precipitate. Or, it will do so when you don't expect that to happen. The memesphere does the same: when the conditions for the diffusion of a meme are right, it will diffuse. Otherwise, it won't.

So, Greta Thunberg was the right meme at the right moment. And, as all good memes, it diffused explosively. And now what?

Memes have a limited lifetime in the memesphere -- it is because they are akin to living creatures and they consume the resources that make them live. They flare up rapidly and then decline slowly. If nothing changes, this is the destiny of the Greta Thunberg's meme -- it might be hastened by ongoing demonization campaign: if there is something that modern Western propaganda can do is demonizing people. After decades of operation, they have learned to do it well.

So, there is a definite chance that Greta Thunberg will fade away and disappear from the memesphere, as her enemies surely hope. But that's not necessarily her future. It is also possible that the meme will mutate, becoming more structured, more propositive, more engaging. It seems that it is what's happening: Greta Thunberg is updating her message and she is starting to propose actual solutions to climate change with a recent video in which she promotes reforestation. That video has some problems and so far it didn't have a big impact, but it is a step in the right direction.

And here we are: complex systems always surprise us, and surely we are in for more. But with Greta around, the future is not anymore so bleak as it seemed to be just a few months ago.

On Greta Thunberg as a climate meme, see also this previous post of mine


  1. "Greta Thunberg has changed the worldwide trend, alone!" (Mr. Bardi quote, emphasis mine.)

    Wondering when and why self-restraint (as sobriety when dealing with information) and objectivity (as stating information based on facts) became capital sins.

    1. Mr. kullervo, I see that you were offended by the way I used the word "alone" -- sorry, I thought it was clear from the context that I didn't mean that a 16 year old girl could change the world, "alone" -- it was referred to the "meme" that this girl carries and, of course, the whole meme is the result of a collective effort! Let me change the wording to make my ideas clearer......

    2. Now I think it is clearer what I meant

  2. As a retired physicist in the last few years I have been lecturing mostly last year high school students on the physics of global warming. All the advertising cames from emailing their school principals.
    I was getting called roughly once a month, just what I wanted. This month I have to do it 7 times, where does all this renewed interest come from?


  3. "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" (Frederick Jameson)
    That quote described our thinking for a very long time now, but this has changed.

    As the protesters really begin to think about climate change, more and more young people became aware that capitalism may be the root of the problem.

    At the last protests I have been to, thousands of young peopls called out for a system change. Even more than the recent rise in public interest for climate change, this is what makes me hopeful for that generation.

  4. I too felt a shift to some hope from Greta.

    The older generation will make it to the grave without too much trouble.
    It is her generation and younger that will see great changes in the world around them. I believe it is that generation that will make changes.

    I also believe those changes will be too late to save their children and grand children from a very difficult life.

  5. Those who can profit from manipulating the lizard brains of the masses will not fail to do so each time they recognize an opportunity. Grooming an appropriate spokesperson is just another item on the agenda. Done well, it will override the monkey and even human parts of the brain.

    Extinction is a natural part of existence for all species. Nothing short of a time machine will do now.

  6. I think that Greta meme won't die only if she and the movement around her will be able to find a target. All the demonstrations were nice but against who or what they got up?! this is definitely not clear. I love this blog and I really appreciate complex systems theory, but Ugo I think sometime you miss a bit of political analysis. The problems underpinning climate change are not merely scientific or technical and can't be explain by merely pointing at complex system dynamics. These are political problems and if you don't formulate a serious and real alternative political paradigm you won't tackle them. That's why eminent scientists have failed so far. Science is always political, it's never neutral. We should use climate science to trigger a political revolution... otherwise Greta meme is bound to fail...

    1. Yes, complex systems are often complicated. My impression is that politics is just a subsystem of memetics!

    2. Ahah this is a typical reply of a natural scientist but we social scientists think differently ;) there is politics even in framing the world as a 'system'

  7. For me, it is not so much interesting, how the people around Greta and around the exitinction rebellion movement can stabilize the meme, but how i personally can contribute to the process of both widespread individual as well as political change.
    As an example, this year I chose to travel to sicily and back by train (from berlin) instead by plane, and communicate this via social media and orally.
    Also it is imho a good idea to make propaganda for the price on carbon whereever one can.
    The system dynamics view - i actually cannot see a lot of help in it as of yet. There is an analysis - forgot where - where it has been analyzed which kind of mass protests has been successful in the past, and it was stated, that it consists of a lot of people putting the respective government under pressure for an extended period of time. So i conclude, this is what has to be supported.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)