Tweeting to Save the Planet: The Role-And Limits-of Social Media in Environmental Solutions

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With talk of climate change in the air, it's difficult to ignore the fact that the typical American is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions of well more than 100 lbs. per day-more than six times the world average. And that's not to mention the various other chemicals, particulates, and effluents we leave in our wake. As the full impact of our lifestyles is better understood, many actions we once took without a thought now seem downright thoughtless. Consciously or not, we're continually making choices, and those choices have consequences. Can technology help us make better choices by providing better information?

Conventional wisdom suggests that our decisions are most often based on our own short-term interests and those of our immediate circle. It's hard to argue with comfort and convenience. However, an emerging branch of environmentalism, armed with startup attitude and the analytical framework of behavioral economics, is positing that given the right combination of information, social pressure, and incentives, behavior can be influenced in an environmentally beneficial way.

One element of this strategy involves social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, which function both as conduits for information and as facilitators of communities (social networks) that can exert positive social pressure. Deployed as part of a broader effort, these tools may have a role to play in affecting the actions people take by influencing their assessment of what constitutes a good choice.

Spreading the Word
To be effective, content that is intended to influence behavior can't simply reside quietly on the servers of government agencies or activist organizations. Information needs to get into the hands of those who might not be seeking it out but without whom there would not be the critical mass needed for impact. Social media and mobile messaging can play a crucial role in this effort by providing many additional channels-beyond news media and static webpages-through which to reach an intended audience: push email, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, RSS feeds, mainstream media, etc. Which channels will be most effective in any given situation depends on the nature of the job at hand.

In some instances, what matters most is getting the word out as quickly as possible to the largest number of individuals. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, when weather conditions make for poor air quality, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) declares a "Spare the Air" day. Residents are encouraged to reduce driving, use public transit, and avoid activities that pollute such as burning wood fires, painting, or using gas-powered gardening gear.

"Twitter is one avenue by which we let the public know if a Spare the Air alert has been issued," says Kristine Roselius, BAAQMD's supervising public information officer. The agency also uses radio and television announcements, RSS feeds, and push email. "We've built a good userbase of followers who respond actively when there's a Spare the Air alert."

BAAQMD alerts are also passed along by other entities within the region, including 511 Contra Costa (www.511contracosta.org), a "transportation demand management" program sponsored by the 20 transit jurisdictions that serve Contra Costa County, just east of San Francisco. Visitors to the program's website can sign up for notification via Twitter, RSS, or email. They can also download iSmog, a free iPhone app that displays current air quality status within the BAAQMD region and allows subscription to notifications regarding Spare the Air and other air quality news.

Air quality notifications are typically based on a forecast issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for all regions of the country. The EPA uses an index that runs from good to hazardous on a scale of 0-500 (www.airnow.gov). State, regional, and local authorities can sign up to forward local air quality forecasts directly to the public using the EPA's EnviroFlash system (www.enviroflash.info),which passes along notifications via email and Twitter. The messages typically include suggested measures for avoiding exposure and reducing activities that contribute to pollution.

In addition to governmental agencies, companies whose businesses involve substantial environmental impact are also exploring the extent to which social media can help inform customers and modify behavior. In Northern California, power utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) employs Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to get information out to more than 4 million customers. So far, the focus has been on rates, regulatory issues, and special programs such as energy savings rebates. To the extent that social media are used for real-time communication with customers, it has primarily been for updates on power outages and storms.

"Our use of social media is still in the relatively early stages," explains PG&E media relations chief Jonathan Marshall. "We also intend to use these channels to alert demand-response customers to event days that call for curtailing usage to take advantage of lower rates or other incentives." Marshall declined to "speculate" on specific initiatives. But it's known that on hot days when air conditioning drives up energy consumption, the utility is sometimes forced to meet demand by turning to higher-polluting reserve power sources. Alerting customers to use less air conditioning and to keep energy-hungry appliances dormant until evening hours could potentially help alleviate the need for this dirtier "peak demand" power.

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