State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

If Ice Could Talk: Environmental Personhood in Social Media

Glaciers and ice have long been the poster children for climate change. But the way we discuss the natural environment and its evolving landscape has changed over the decades, with shifting cultural concepts and increased technology use. Social media, in particular, has provided a creative format for expressing ideas surrounding environmental personhood.

A screenshot of a tweet
Tweet from a parody account (AmundsenSea / X)

Discussions of personhood—the quality of being a person or individual—have pervaded the environmental movement and increasingly become a topic of conversation in legal discourse. While Indigenous groups have granted nature rights since time immemorial, U.S. scholars started to argue for the legal rights of nature in the 1970s.

In Dr. Seuss’ beloved book “The Lorax,” the character of the Lorax famously declares, “I speak for the trees,” publicizing the notion that nature should have its own say. However, the same phrase also demonstrates that nature cannot speak for itself.

The cryosphere, which contains all the ice on our planet, has a powerful influence on climate crisis discussions because it is at serious risk of destruction. The story behind features like glaciers, ice sheets and polar oceans is filtered through the biases of the humans documenting them. In turn, dramatic scenes of glaciers melting and ice shelves collapsing seem to garner the most global attention, perpetrating doom-and-gloom reporting that can increase anxiety, not action.

What if the environment could speak for itself? What if we had glaciers telling stories, ice sheets cracking jokes or polar seas speaking their mind? What impact could environmental personhood have?

Some users on the social media platform X (previously known as Twitter) have taken matters into their own hands and brought the cryosphere to life: From Washington State’s infamous Mt. St. Helens to the polar Amundsen Sea, parody accounts are popping up and personifying nature.

Parody accounts offer entertainment and satire by pretending to be another person or group. These types of accounts have been around almost as long as Twitter or X. The trend of environmental parodies, however, seems to have expanded significantly since 2020, with many user accounts only a few years old.

Screenshot of a Twitter/X profile homepage
Parody account profile of AmundsenSea / X

In a recent interview with GlacierHub, the creator of @AmundsenSea on X, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared their inspiration behind starting their parody account.

“I started around four years ago, partly as a bit of fun, but also in the hope that it might be useful for science communication,” the account holder explained. Influenced by their background as a scientist, they turned their focus to the Amundsen Sea, a part of the Southern Ocean off western Antarctica. “I thought it might provide a way of increasing awareness of the main cause of ice loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The fact that the ice loss has been driven by changes in ocean circulation rather than directly by atmospheric warming doesn’t seem to be widely appreciated,” they added.

Many of the parodies seem to take a lighthearted approach, using retweets accompanied with quips and tongue-in-cheek comments to draw users’ attention to their exaggerated caricatures of the environment. But the accounts may be getting something deeper across.

As the Amundsen Sea account said, parody can benefit scientific communication. By pretending to be the literal feature of the sea, they can familiarize media users in a friendly way with the specific terminology, environmental processes and scientific discoveries of a place they likely won’t ever see. In one recent tweet, the Amundsen Sea joked with the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration about uncovering the glacier’s bed, poking fun at both the process of glacial erosion and the people who doubt it’s happening.

A screenshot of a tweet that features text and images of truck on the ice
Retweet joking about glacial erosion. (AmundsenSea / X and GlacierThwaits / X)

“The benefit of parody is for a layman’s audience that might not be familiar with this certain topic; it’s an easy connection to make,” says Laurel Zaima, the assistant director of K12 and Continuing Education at Columbia Climate School, in an interview with GlacierHub.

With X being largely dominated by Gen Z and millennials, parody accounts might be another way to disseminate science. A study in 2021 analyzing humor in scientific engagement found that satire and wordplay “positively related to scientific tweets’ engagement metrics.” Parody accounts may be better equipped to connect with younger generations through these strategies. But beyond the focus on scientific engagement and humor, the exasperated messages from these accounts question humans’ actions toward the planet. Even when nature learns to speak, have we learned to listen?

A screenshot of a tweet featuring a cover of a Nature magazine with an image of the Earth
Tweet discussing impacts of climate change (AmundsenSea / X)

“Stories are an important way to share about environmental changes and connect people to what we are experiencing, and can be paired with the science,” Zaima explains. “But the impacts speak for themselves. If you just see all that is happening around the world, the climate impacts, all show the same thing: our climate is changing.” While the internet can bring remote places to people who may never be able to see them with their own eyes, the most important part, she states, is being able to take that attention and turn it into action. These parody accounts show frustration with the lack of action through their tweets.

A screenshot of a tweet with text
Tweet joking about climate change skeptics. (AmundsenSea / X and jeffgoodell / X)

Parodies create an opportunity for people and places across the world to connect on serious discussions about the changing environment through the lens of humor in a way that doom-and-gloom lecturing cannot. Humans may not understand the songs of glaciers, but their disappearance speaks volumes. The creators of parody accounts suggest that sardonic tweets are one way to help people listen better to them.

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