Socially Speaking, the State of the Planet

by |October 31, 2012
SOP 2012 students social media

Students from India, China, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Brazil and Canada who are engaged in studies in sustainable development offered a global view through live videos webcast into the State of the Planet 2012 conference.

By Melissa von Mayrhauser

If you wanted to get a sense of the State of the Planet, you didn’t need to be at the Earth Institute conference at Columbia University on Oct. 11. You just needed to follow #SOP2012.

Six hundred people gathered at the event to think about the future of sustainable development, while 476 people sent 1,300 tweets, making about 6.2 million impressions through Twitter — in other words, the number of tweets multiplied by the number of the tweeters’ followers.

Convening to talk about what our post-2015 development agenda should be, speakers discussed how we can improve sustainable development education, reduce poverty through technology and increase public awareness about climate change.

One thread running through the event was that social media is an important way to draw attention to sustainable development issues on an international platform and in a comprehensible way. (You can still follow the conversation about sustainable development at the Earth Institute’s Twitter feed, and on the conference website, Stateoftheplanet.org.)

The response to Hurricane Sandy over the past week has illustrated the point well: Social media has played an important role in conveying news and dramatic pictures and videos of the storm’s devastating impact. It has also broadened the conversation by linking together thought and opinion from many quarters about the role climate change has played in setting us up for such a disaster (for more on that, see this related post).

Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan spoke to the State of the Planet 2012 conference.

“Protecting and preserving our planet for future generations is not a job for one person, one institution or one country,” Jordanian Queen Rania Al Abdullah said during a taped message. “It is a job for each one of us. That’s why we must extend this conversation beyond Columbia’s campus. So I’m glad that you’re using social media to bring in a wide range of voices from all over the world.”

Among the most active digital followers of the event were Yvonne Bok (@yvonnebok), Lauren Lavitt (@laurenlavittnyc), and Andrew Freedman (@afreedma).
While Bok, a writer for UN EARTH News, said that she was not planning to tweet, when she arrived and heard Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs’ opening presentation, she “felt a sense of responsibility” when thinking about how she could mobilize Twitter, due to its “potential for education and partnership.”

“We have to make experts’ sometimes complex messages accessible and engaging,” Bok said. “Twitter is surprisingly helpful in this way; 140 characters can draw you into a larger discussion.”

Bok also said that the event spurred her to think to a greater extent about the need for journalists to interview scientists and to communicate with the general public about issues in an accessible way, especially concerning James Hansen’s remarks.

“It’s difficult to communicate with the public,” Hansen, director of the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said. “You can’t turn on your television without seeing these advertisements for clean coals and clean tar sands. It’s propaganda…we’ve got to do a better job of informing the public, but also the media and decision makers.”

Freedman, a senior science writer at Climate Central, said that talks by Hansen and his colleague Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, about carbon use and climate change were tweet-worthy.

“The most interesting part of the conference for me was seeing Lisa Goddard discuss climate variability on the same stage as James Hansen was describing a carbon tax/dividend scheme,” Freedman said. “They had very different perspectives, and they both did an excellent job.”

Freedman added that the live-streaming and tweets allowed him to cover the event from a different location. During the event, 1,138 people watched the live webcast. Speakers such as Glenn Denning, director of the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, spoke about using the Internet and live-streaming to connect classrooms “in real time and discussing real issues on the practice of sustainable development.”

Lavitt, who writes for the UN EARTH News Journal, said, “It was very easy to jump into the social media conversation through tweeting.” She said that the event’s focus on climate change was particularly weighty.

“I appreciated the acknowledgement that not nearly enough has been done to slow down and stop climate change, and we need the agenda to be much more urgent and cognizant of the fact we have such little time to mitigate,” Lavitt said.

This State of the Planet event turned a new page, not only in terms of encouraging greater online participation, but also as a new model for future events. Moving forward toward 2015, the Earth Institute will start to hold the conference twice a year in a half-day format. The conference until now has been biennial.

To find out more about the conference and tweet your own reactions to the content, check out the videos of the speakers online here.

(Guest blogger Melissa von Mayrhauser is a student at Columbia College and works as an intern at the Earth Institute.)

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