Apr 26, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Climate scientists and activists nervously eye Musk

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is being greeted warily by the climate science community.

Why it matters: For scientists and activists, Twitter has long been a place for sharing research ideas and interacting with journalists and the public. It has also helped kindle and sustain the climate activist movement.

  • Musk’s views on free speech, and to a lesser extent climate science and solutions, may help determine if climate researchers and activists disband the communities they put so much time and effort into creating.

Yes, but: Twitter is also home to forces hostile to mainstream climate science findings, with climate deniers attacking researchers and harassing them.

Context: After years in which climate denial posts flourished and could be amplified through monetization, Twitter has moved to try to limit ads that go against the central finding that human activities are driving modern-day global warming.

  • A revised policy on this was announced just last week, but it’s unclear whether it will continue under Musk’s ownership.

What they’re saying: Jacquelyn Gill, a climate professor at the University of Maine and prominent voice in the climate Twitter community, told Axios in an interview that she found connections on the platform that she wouldn’t have another way, and fears that might be lost if changes are made.

  • “We started the 'March for Science' on Twitter,” she said. “You can't say it's not powerful.”

Between the lines: Gill and other scientists contacted for this story expressed the concern that Twitter will become a harsher place for certain voices in the climate community that already face a disproportionate amount of online vitriol, such as people of color and members of the LBGTQ community.

  • If hate speech increases on the platform under Musk, it could narrow the range of voices that get amplified in the climate conversation, Gill and other scientists said.
  • "Hate speech is not protected speech. And making this a harder place to have conversations, if you are, you know, a white woman or a BIPOC person or a queer person or a trans person or all of those things, right?" Gill said. "Every box that you tick makes Twitter a more difficult and dangerous space."

Genevieve Guenther, a climate writer and activist, told Axios in an interview that Twitter is a unique forum where different actors in the climate space interact and learn from one another.

  • “I think it's absolutely essential for researchers, politicians, journalists and activists to all talk to each other in the climate space,” she said.

Zoom in: Peter Kalmus, a climate researcher who has more than 243,000 followers on Twitter, told Axios he uses the platform to get word out about scientific findings and events that the mainstream media might otherwise ignore.

  • For example, many reporters learned about a coordinated protest by climate scientists on April 6 via Twitter and other social media, he said.
  • During these protests, Kalmus was arrested for locking himself to an entrance of JP Morgan Chase Bank in downtown Los Angeles.
  • Kalmus tweeted Monday that he had set up a TikTok account.

Meanwhile, some prominent climate scientists are taking a clear anti-Musk stance.

  • “Absent a commitment from Musk and the board that there will be a strict firewall protecting the medium from his meddling and influence, the independence and objectivity of Twitter is now fundamentally threatened,” Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann told Axios via email.
  • “The greatest threat to the very “freedom of speech” that Musk professes to be so concerned about is Musk himself,” he said.
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