Science·What on Earth?

Why social media can play a positive role in environmental action

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at social media's positive role in climate action and a country that actually has negative carbon emissions.

Also: Meet a country that actually has negative carbon emissions

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Why social media can play a positive role in environmental action
  • Meet a country that actually has negative carbon emissions
  • Don Pittis on Corporate America's green(er) agenda

Why social media can play a positive role in environmental action

(Submitted by Emanuel George)

Many people believe that social media is a waste of time, an exercise in narcissism. But it can also inspire you in surprising ways.

It was March 2019 when #TrashTag popped up on my social media feed. The hashtag was a call to action for people to clean up garbage-strewn areas around them, and linked to the accounts of millions of folks around the world tidying local beaches, parks and ditches on the side of highways.

Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were blowing up with the hashtag, and I wanted to be a part of it. So I grabbed my roommate Alex, along with our friend Emanuel, and we went out to do our part to help save the world. Six very cold hours later, we had covered an area of nearly three hectares at Burlington Beach, west of Toronto, and collected three large bags of trash.

Here's what else happened: Throughout the day, strangers came up and asked us what we were doing. When we answered, many said it was something they were interested in doing, too. A few children saw us and copied our behaviour.

We posted pictures online, tagged them with #TrashTag and even made a video out of our little adventure. People commented and messaged me, saying they were inspired to clean up, too. Soon, pictures trickled into my Facebook feed, showing that my friends and family had stayed true to their word: They had completed the challenge as well.

It made me realize that internet activism can actually spark awareness — and action. And #TrashTag is still going strong. In the last week, it has reached over 800,000 people on Twitter alone.

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in California, has written that "social media changes public awareness. Because information circulates so freely and quickly, it creates a new baseline for change."

And she has noted that social media has given environmental issues "an urgency much more potent than getting highlights in the evening news."

One of the best examples of this is young Swedish eco-activist Greta Thunberg, whose weekly climate strikes in Stockholm went viral on social media. Now, she's a global inspiration, addressing European parliaments, chastising CEOs at the World Economic Forum and even garnering a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Another example of online activism at work is the banning of plastic straws. This, too, picked up speed on social media. In response to a 2017 report by International Coastal Cleanup that found straws were one of the top 10 items collected on coastlines globally, a hashtag was born: #StopSucking. Within its first four months, the hashtag had been used more than 304 million times.

The result? Companies and governments have taken heed. Starbucks and McDonald's have begun phasing them out. Alaska Airlines will be cutting plastic straws from their flights. Canada announced a plan to ban single-use plastics, like straws, by 2021. 

So the next time you're feeling hopeless about the environment, look at your social media feed — you might find a little inspiration.

Taylor Logan

Reader feedback

Our piece on air conditioning last week spurred a number of readers to share their own non-A/C methods of keeping their homes cool.

One of them was Roxanne Richle, who wrote: "I live in Switzerland, where air conditioning in private homes is rare. Granted, we don't get a lot of high heat, but we did have a couple of heat waves this summer up to 37 C. My apartment stayed almost 10 C lower than outside just by keeping the fans on and [windows] open in the morning. Then, as the temperature rose to 28 C, I closed everything up. Amazing that it makes that much difference."

Comments or suggestions? Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Bhutan, the only carbon-negative country

To reach the targets of the Paris climate accord and work toward a low-carbon economy, governments are looking at ways to not only reduce their emissions but also find viable methods for sucking carbon out of the air. Bhutan, a kingdom nestled in the Himalayan mountains between India and China, has achieved a rare feat among the nations of the world: It actually has negative emissions. In other words, it absorbs more carbon than it produces. Bhutan has achieved this through a system of initiatives, from aggressive tree-planting to strong conservation efforts to charging tourists a "sustainable development" fee.

(Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Corporate America lays out a green(er) agenda

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

CBC business columnist Don Pittis examines the sincerity of a recent pact from a group representing U.S. corporations that would see it take a more active role in protecting the environment.

As part of a plan to distance themselves from a single-minded focus on short-term shareholder value, nearly 200 corporate leaders from the Business Roundtable, an association that advocates for large U.S. corporations, have added the environment to their list of concerns.

Business luminaries such as Apple's Tim Cook, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, General Motors honcho Mary Barra and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase (above), were among those who signed the new document.

"We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses," said part of the new Statement of Purpose of a Corporation formulated by the group.

The green portions of the statement fly in the face of the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has consistently eroded environmental regulations, expressed support for coal mining and withdrawn his country from the Paris climate accord. 

This list of new, non-binding principles represents a departure for a business organization that since 1997 has emphasized shareholder primacy.

"It affirms the essential role corporations can play in improving our society when CEOs are truly committed to meeting the needs of all stakeholders," said Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson.

In the past, the Business Roundtable has offered what has been described as qualified support for action on climate change. But the sweeping new statement seems to take broad social responsibility well beyond the group's traditional focus on the bottom line. Of course, these executives still see market forces as the way to attain that goal.

"We believe the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all," declares the new statement of purpose.

The apparent move leftward has been criticized from both sides, with one business commentator calling it "pious bunk," saying that corporations can't do their job of making money while organizing society at the same time.

Indeed, the new principles conflict with the somewhat cynical North American capitalist model, where companies concentrate on doing anything legal to maximize profits, and governments, guided by the popular will, decide what is legal.

But a growing disenchantment with that system, particularly in the Trump era, has begun to reflect badly on corporations. According to Larry Summers, the Harvard economist who served in high-profile government roles when Democrats were in power, the corporate bosses may be trying to pre-empt the inevitable backlash.

As Summers told the Financial Times, "I worry the Roundtable's rhetorical embrace of stakeholders is in part a strategy for holding off necessary tax and regulatory reform."

Perhaps with all the talk of socialism and a Green New Deal, corporate leaders worry they will be forced to shake up their profitable strategies to save the world.

Taken at face value, the new statement of purpose may represent the first step in the realization that to earn their profits, giant corporations depend on a healthy environment and a flourishing society — even if that prosperity means being open to new government restraints.

Don Pittis

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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