Confronting Climate Change in Surprisingly Offline Times

Climate hawks are extremely online. It might be the key characteristic differentiating them from the OG environmentalist advocates who preceded them.

Indeed, despite the alleged new age of the “climate hawk,” mainstream climate politics mostly just reproduce the premises of classic reactionary environmentalism. Climate politics are about as millenarian and technophobic as what came before, at best combining an affection for renewable and transit technologies with an allergy to the mining, transmission, pipeline, and environmental regulatory reform that these technologies require. Climate activists remain much better educated and much whiter than the population at large. Even the seemingly innovative feature of climate politics, the marching-and-protest style of advocacy, is unoriginal, owing substantially to the fusion of environmentalism and civil rights organizing that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

But unlike their parents and grandparents, native climate hawks are also digital natives, the first generation to grow up with little or no memory of life before the Internet.

As the sociologist Holly Jean Buck argues lucidly in a thought-provoking recent essay titled “Confronting Climate Change in Extremely Online Times,” their digital nativity is not incidental—it has defined climate hawks’ politics. “It seems obvious,” she writes, “that we would reach this point of being globally networked, and that the Internet would not just ‘play a role’ in global events like COVID-19 or climate change, but shape them.”

This is undoubtedly the case. But the more specific object of Buck’s critique is the corporate ownership of the social media platforms shaping climate politics, which she argues largely function to “stir up conflict and stoke fear.” Better, she writes, would be “public, collectively owned, and nonprofit platforms” that could be used to “imagine better futures and focus on shared goals.”

Putting aside the practicalities of nationalizing Facebook and Twitter (er, X), Buck’s diagnosis elides two key things. The first is the extent to which conflict and fear are products not merely of corporatized social media streams, but also of the Information Age itself. And the second is the highly plausible possibility that, while climate politics came of age in the Era of the Extremely Online, that era is already receding, fragmenting into smaller niche digital communities and crowded out by a surprisingly offline, material world.


Buck’s is at her most convincing as she paints the portrait of extremely online climate politics.

The first thing digitally native climate politics does is to falsely translate the democratic interests of communities, both large and small. As Buck puts it, “‘‘one Facebook group doesn’t want this new geothermal plant’ can quickly become ‘the community doesn’t want this geothermal plant.’”

Such is the nature of a globally connected and universally accessible digital information matrix, in which absolute minority viewpoints can nevertheless attract intensely vocal adherents. Elite media, largely online nonprofit advocacy, and social information platforms then stack the deck against comparatively quiet, diffuse, and democratic interests.

Just look at the way the interests of “the community” are described in the story of Project Cyprus, a direct-air capture plant in Louisiana that gained the support of its local elected representatives. But according to one small environmental justice advocate, the project developers “only engaged with our police, City Council, mayor, you know, the governor. They have not engaged with community members as of yet.” These are two very distinct conceptions of “the community.” And it was the views of the latter, not the former, that dominated news coverage of the plant. How can we expect our environmental politics to genuinely translate real-world community interests when the largely digital institutions of environmental justice weaponize the algorithmic biases of Internet media to make evidently quite powerful claims about democratic representation?

Or consider the seamlessness with which one can now become a climate activist. In 2016, over a million people used the “check in” function on Facebook to virtually “show up” in the Standing Rock Reservation of North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This metaphorical checking in was not without material effect: the purpose was to “overwhelm and confuse” the local sheriff’s office, which was purportedly using Facebook to identify and track protesters. Not only is it possible, in the Digital Age, to speak for a community without ever having visited it. Today you can become a climate activist, even join an IRL protest, by idly clicking a button on your screen.

As Buck argues, the issues with our frictionless digital climate politics don’t end there. “There are practical problems,” she continues, “that are not going to be dealt with through grassroots bottom-up decentralized actions directed by local communities.” Even achieving genuinely democratic local representation, perhaps even with the aid of some publicly managed social media platforms, will surely fall short of achieving true climate justice. This might be the most perverse trap of modern climate politics: by accentuating and then ideologically mistranslating the interests of local communities, climate hawks have made it structurally impossible to address problems of the global commons. “Think globally, act locally” turns out to be a paradox, not a plan.

But while Buck is spot-on in her critique that social media misshapes the conversation about climate solutions, she fails to fully consider the ways in which the machines of information overload poorly describe the problem of climate change.

Traditional environmental problems, like a polluting power plant or a degraded ecosystem, are viscerally, acutely felt. Climate impacts caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions, on the other hand, are diffuse, difficult to measure, and, indeed, highly contested. It takes the sweeping and coordinated power of the Internet (not to mention powerful computer models) to determine and broadcast the purported effects of climate change.

Now, of course, climate is acutely and viscerally felt. Extreme weather and natural disasters in particular, which have become synecdoche for climate change writ large, are neither diffuse nor difficult to measure. But that has always been the case. The fingerprints of anthropogenic carbon emissions on extreme weather, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, remain, largely, opaque. Carbon emissions absolutely appear to be driving marginal intensification of heat waves and precipitation events observed around the world. But evidence of human influence on natural disasters–tornadoes, floods, wildfires, and droughts among them–is more noise than signal to date.

Perhaps the pre-Internet Information Age could have accomplished what digital media has: to see through this opacity and cast every single natural disaster as having been “caused by global warming.” But scientists and governments have been drawing attention to climate change since long before the invention of the Internet. Notice how even though the first presidential scientific advisory committee on climate change convened in 1965, and even though James Hansen’s infamous testimony on global warming took place in 1988, and even though Al Gore published his first book on climate change in 1992, and even though (most of) the international community passed a climate treaty in 1997, climate politics as we know them today did not emerge until immediately after the founding of Facebook.

Would a “public, collectively owned” set of social media platforms do a better job of describing the causes, and advancing the solutions, of climate change? By all means, let’s find out. But there are reasons to be skeptical. Plenty of democratically elected representatives invoke the same catastrophist, millenarian climate imaginaries stoked by social media algorithms. The public sector has been all too happy to outsource much of its function to the organs of “community engagement,” readily deferring to extremely online environmental advocates in lieu of either authentic democratic decision-making or robust state capacity. To the extent that scientistic power grabs, illegitimate deference to inauthentic localism, and an inability to build at scale are diseases of late modernity—and, to be clear, they are—they are at worst intensified, but not caused, by corporate social media.


But perhaps the most obvious reason for skepticism of Buck’s thesis is the simultaneous “enshittification” of social media platforms and the unequivocal wave of “extremely offline” social and political realities unfolding today.

Everyone knows that Facebook, once the radical new terrain of college students, is for The Olds now. Instagram, which Facebook owns, feels sure to follow, its users’ feeds increasingly polluted by ads, sponsored content, and influencers they don’t follow. The shine is surely off the apple at Twitter (ugh, X), that once-most-elite of platforms now suffering an exodus of users and an onslaught of bots in the year since Elon Musk bought it. And is TikTok even legal anymore?

These are, arguably, not one-off failures of serially decaying platforms. They are, quite plausibly, the dialectical inevitability of what Cory Doctorow calls the “enshittification” of social media, in which initially “free” public digital platforms subsidized by venture capital must eventually serve the commercial interests of shareholders, forcing an ultimate transformation into little more than more addictive classified ads.

Buck’s praiseworthy impulse to seize the gears of information dissemination, to discipline them with democratic accountability and shared public purpose, probably would have made more sense four or five years ago, when at least some of the platforms still felt vital and ascendent. Today, the idea of nationalizing social media feels more and more like nationalizing the tabloids. Today, it is much more commonplace to propose banning social media and smartphones than to propose harnessing them for shared social purpose.

Perhaps precisely by removing the commercial interests at the heart of the platforms we could neuter their tendency toward enshittification? Again, by all means, let’s give it a shot. But the other reason that Buck’s proposal would have made more sense four or five years ago is that, in the intervening years, the offline world has re-asserted itself with a vengeance.

For years, climate activists used the channels of digital information exchange to exaggerate the risks of global warming, to pretend that there exists any constituency for radical degrowth and anti-capitalist politics, and to attempt to conjure a formal declaration of “climate emergency,” the corporeal specifics of which they rarely spelled out. These same activists, along with the rest of the world, were caught off guard in spring 2020, when an actual, according-to-Hoyle global emergency ground the gears of modernity to a halt. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many of the reactions climate hawks had failed for years to produce: lockdowns on commercial and public activity, regulating of citizens’ behavior, expedited industrial policy, and a radical expansion of the welfare state.

Buck is right that social media “shaped” the public perception of climate change and COVID alike. The effect of the platforms on climate communications is at least as strong, making everyone believe, for instance, there has been a rise in deaths attributed to natural disasters, when the reality is precisely the opposite: there has been a steady decline, not an increase, in casualties from extreme weather. Extremely online climate politics are the cart pulling the horse of IRL climate impacts. But these online imaginaries and exaggerations have proven largely ineffectual in steering climate policy. Conversely, no amount of algorithmic engineering could meaningfully determine the supply and demand of hospital beds, ventilators, and human death that began in 2020. While the personal and policy response to the pandemic has largely died down, at its peak it dramatically overshadowed any actions spurred by climate politics.

COVID, in this way, should have reminded the climate community of the offline world that exists outside of PDF Summaries for Policymakers and spreadsheet models of real-world energy systems. Indeed, it was only by coasting on the winds of the government’s generous pandemic response that climate advocates were finally able to pass long sought after “comprehensive climate policy,” in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Those winds, unmistakably, have since died down, depressurized by another set of offline phenomena: inflation and supply-chain shocks. Climate politics, it turns out, were a ZIRP.

And of course, the offline world did not stop spinning after the pandemic receded (while never quite disappearing) from view. The racial reckoning of 2020 collided with a post-COVID return to work to create new interpersonal anxieties and pressures on groaning infrastructure. Donald Trump’s supporters perpetrated an unprecedented assault on the US Capitol Building. Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine. Hamas murdered hundreds in its terrorist attack on Israel, provoking a still-ongoing and horrifying retaliation in the Gaza Strip. China’s saber-rattling intensified. And these are just a few of the many recent major offline global events, highlighted here because of their disproportionate, if understandable, position in the global discourse.

As these events evolve and intensify, the same tailwinds that produced the IRA—the increased salience of infrastructure fragility and monetary inflation—could quickly turn into headwinds. As Jennifer Harris recently warned, “IRA implementation could well produce a bump in public support for decarbonization—but one that is nonetheless overpowered in the voting booth by highly salient issues like inflation, immigration, or even foreign policy.”


However any of us would describe the last few years in their totality, they have unquestionably dislodged the extremely online politics of climate change. As Buck suggests in her essay, that is likely for the better, as our existing climate politics remain unsuited to meaningful climate action:

"We still tend to lack a clear analysis of what the failure of the Arab Spring means for on-the-street protest tactics, what Putin’s grip on power means for strategies for ending fossil fuel production, what energy geopolitics and fossil fuel shortages mean on the ground for climate politics, or what high metal prices and the geopolitics of critical materials mean for the ability to build renewable energy at levels to supply sufficient reliable energy to everyone. These dimensions have not been central to the climate movement and its strategies, which typically focus on local, grassroots action in places and with people already sympathetic to climate action."

Buck’s specific prescription, a bettering of social media through democratic accountability, and her more general recommendations, on broadly improved media literacy and incentives, are compelling. And the reality of climate change’s powerful presence in our social priorities is testament to the power of our digital media infrastructure. It is for that reason, among others, that readers are probably reading this post on Substack, which one hopes will resist the enshittification that has plagued other digital discourse platforms. Ideas matter, in climate action as in everything.

But emissions reductions, at the end of the day, happen offline.