When Louis Levanti woke up one morning in September last, climate change was not on his mind. “I was never very active in researching climate change, but I knew it was real.” So when the 24-year-old TikTok creator, who lives with his parents on Long Island, opened his phone and saw something about the unveiling of a clock, he wasn’t initially interested. “I rolled my eyes, thinking it had something to do with the stock market.”
The The Climate Clock, in Union Square in New York, counts the time we have left to act before climate change becomes irreversible. Levanti, who normally posts videos on topics like “the weird food celebrities like to eat” or “the boring things people do at the gym,” was in distress, and he immediately decided to make a TikTok video at this subject. “It is a problem that cannot be ignored,” he said. “Why not responsibly use my great platform to educate people and wake up some people like I was?”
In the TikTok Video, Levanti, superimposed on an image of Earth on fire, says, “Hey, stop scrolling. Our planet is dying. It has had over 314,000 views and has been shared nearly 14,000 times. There are over 5,000 comments, some of which are heartbreaking: “I’m 13, does that mean my future children are going to suffer.” “It’s sad that young people have to suffer because of this.
Levanti says he was shocked to read the reviews, especially those from younger users. “There are young kids on this app who won’t be able to experience this planet like I did, and I’m only 24, so I’ve barely experienced it.”
Climate talk takes place on TikTok
The world is facing a climate change problem and climate change is facing a communication problem. The complexities and assumptions of climate science don’t translate well to an audience that just wants to know if the dress was blue or white. And yet, on TikTok, one of the most active communication platforms in the world, climate change is a growing topic. The hashtag #ForClimate has over 533 million views. A video showing a girl singing, “We’re killing the earth and it’s really fun, nobody believes us because we’re young” has over 6.4 million likes. Every day, thousands of content creators, mostly Gen Z, post videos about climate change and their personal relationship to it. In the span of five minutes, you can get tips on the zero waste movement, watch a teenager cry while watching hungry polar bears, learn about environmental racism, and see scientists working in Antarctica.
The idea that a group of TikTok users can change the world, while seemingly absurd, is actually pretty accurate. In June 2020, a group of TikTok creators encouraged their fans to register for a rally for former President Trump and then not showing. Over a million tickets have been requested; less than 7,000 people attended. It was a public humiliation for Trump and a victory for TikTok. When the murder of George Floyd sparked public outrage, the creators of TikTok flooded the platform with #BlackLivesMatter content. Advocates of abortion clinics take religious protest videos and post them on TikTok to support abortion rights. We are already seeing TikTok users pushing for real grassroots social change.
Thomas Schinko, deputy director of the Risk and Resilience Research Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, explains that the narrative aspect of TikTok is what makes it so effective. “From our research experience, we know that storytelling is essential for communicating about the climate crisis in a way that can lead to action.” According to Schinko, TikTok has incredible potential as an arts-based activist platform. “With creative ideas, artistic works and a lot of commitment, they show in a partly humorous, partly frightening and disturbing way how important it is to protect the climate.”