An Organizer’s Perspective Part III: Wikimedia is a key part of Global Climate and Sustainability Communications. Now is the moment to embrace it.

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In my last two posts, I explained why social changers (Part I) and movement organizers (Part II) are key parts of recruiting the potential participants in our movement and fulfilling Wikimedia movement strategy. In this post, I want to explain a bit behind why we have been focusing the WikiForHumanRights campaign (join today) on the environmental themes associated with the Right to a Healthy Environment.

Community building to include new knowledge allies and build a prosperous movement requires finding intersectionality between outside movements and our own. Right now there is a precious moment to meet one movement, the climate movement, in a way that both highlights some of our most glaring knowledge gaps while also recruiting from a diverse ecosystem that can help us grow our communities. 

The climate movement has erupted in the public scene with the leadership of young and indigenous people, global south activists and women. They are a digitally enabled movement seeking to create a more just, livable world through knowledge and community. Members of the Wikimedia movement have been paying attention to this discourse and reflecting on their own role in communicating the climate crisis and the need for sustainable development using Wikimedia tactics. From Wikimedians for Sustainable Development to #WikiForHumanRights, our early attempts to engage this public suggest the time is right to connect them with the opportunities afforded by Wikimedia platforms.

As I outlined in the previous post, we need to create active paths for outside movements to join the Wikimedia community. Wikimedidistas de Uruguay and Wikimedia Argentina are piloting a course for climate communicators and editing Wikipedia. Climate activists the world over are looking for capacity development opportunities like this.

I think, given some time and space and support, the broader sustainability topic area will be as significant to the movement’s growth as existing thematic networks focused on gender, education, culture and heritage (built, living and natural esp. the Wiki Loves campaigns), and library outreach. Like each of these areas, the climate crisis affects a global public who needs us to create persistent reliable multilingual documentation. How you might ask? In this essay I will describe what is happening in the climate movement and climate communications, where I think Wikimedia platforms have a clear opportunity to invite a new public to our community, and where I think we can start to make that change.

Why Climate and Sustainability now?

In the past few years, the climate movement and public awareness of climate change has swelled. This is happening the world over; youth and other activists are inspiring whole generations of adults shocked by the impacts of climate change to join what used to be niche activism. The Climate Movement has been growing rapidly through major activations like global climate marches and the youth movement, catalyzed by leaders like Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, Disha Ravi and other Fridays for Future organizers

Why are they able to change the conversation? 

  • First, science has become increasingly clear: society as a whole is running full steam at a crisis that it doesn’t have the political will to solve or adapt to. This lack of understanding has largely been the work of three decades of corporate misinformation stalling political action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) review of the impacts of Climate Change is very grim, and clear: humanity is not preparing quickly enough for what is coming.
  • Second, the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly real for everyone. One of the main challenges in mobilizing large-scale action: when the science for climate change became clear ~30 years ago it seemed like a far off problem. Not anymore. If you are looking, new disasters are happening almost every day, and at least once a week a major one rises to center stage of most European and North American news cycles (more on this perspective bias below). 
  • Third, leadership from the youth and wider environmental movements has fully embraced an intersectional coalition that elevates marginalized communities, and tries to solve problems from a truly global, multilingual, multi-contextual perspective focused on equitable futures. The environmental movement is now focused on not just conservation or preservation of the natural world, but also sustainable development and environmental justice.
The increasingly visible impacts of the climate crises on communities around the world has made the climate movement grow in intersectional and multidimensional ways. We are entering a world of increasing complexity, and many people are looking for impactful actions they can take; contributing to Wikimedia should be one of them.

I can’t emphasize enough how confusing and complicated the world is going to get in the next few decades as the crisis grows more visible. What we are about to experience (and you probably are already experiencing) is unpredictable but very foreseeable. The Working Group II report from the IPCC, recently documented a future (even if we reduce carbon emissions), that includes (among many others): 

  • Harm and dying because of heat waves, droughts, flooding and disease. 
  • Havoc on supply chains causing widespread economic suffering and food shortages.
  • Severe damage to communities in the global south and other marginalized spaces without the resources to adapt.
  • Destruction of cultural heritage, communities, buildings, and livelihoods.
  • Extreme stress on both land and water ecosystems.

At the same time, most of the technologies and policy frameworks we need to both reduce carbon emissions and adapt to these situations are readily available. This crisis is preventable with the knowledge that experts have been gathering for the last few decades. A successful reduction of human suffering requires billions of small, informed decisions at every level of society from the international diplomats down to the “smallest possible policy maker,” as described by Anna Grijalva from UNDP Ecuador, at the level of local jurisdictions: grocery store managers, construction engineers, local politicians, and farmers. 

Where could we focus? How do we play a role?

Cool; so the world is going to have some massive problems. Why is Wikimedia particularly well suited to be involved in this solution? 

At the most basic level, Wikipedia matters because the general public is beginning to see how our work affects the public narrative about climate change more generally, and when we get it wrong, it has the potential to be harmful to vulnerable communities

We are probably one of the biggest sources of information on climate change in the world – with more than 324 million annual pageviews across over 25,000 explicitly-about-climate articles in nearly every language Wikipedia along with billions pageviews on other climate connected pages. Probably, the only other website that has comparable public impact is NASA’s which is published in English only and has a United States bias. (Let me know if you can identify another large one). As the IPCC has communicated, climate communication is one of the key tools for addressing the current crises.

But I also think our role in communicating the Climate Crisis matters because we have an opportunity to align our future with the environmental movement’s emerging priorities for public knowledge: it’s good for us, our mission and the future of public knowledge.

Synergy and capacity for fulfilling our mission

The intersectional nature of the climate crises, actually highlights some of the most glaring gaps in the Wikimedia movement — both knowledge gaps and community gaps. This intersectionality is both in terms of the topical dimensions — since climate change impacts practically every sphere of life — and in terms of relevance to marginalized communities, for whom climate justice and action is increasingly a focus.

There are dozens of areas of knowledge within climate and sustainability topics and these overlap heavily with huge gaps on Wikimedia projects. For example, approximately 1 billion people make their livelihoods from agriculture and the food industry employs another billion or so additional people. The triple planetary crises — the climate crises, along with pollution and the biodiversity loss– directly affect our food systems. 

As far as I can tell, Wikipedia’s coverage on agriculture is terrible (please prove me wrong), and our coverage is only slightly better when it comes to food culture (thank you WikiCheese, The Levant Food Photo Contest, Wiki Loves Food in India and other similar initiatives!). Working on climate topics through agriculture by example, would make our platform more valuable to a major portion of the global population not using us and allow us to do what we do best (document cultural practices under threat). 

A picture of women harvesting seaweed in Tanzania — part of a series of photos that won best Photo Essay that won part of Wiki Loves Africa 2017. Seaweed farming is an important climate adaptation for many parts of the world, but is only documented in 9 languages.

Similar Wikipedia content gaps with climate change overlaps include:

  • Cities and other populated places, especially in the Global South
  • Bodies of water and natural reserves under threat
  • Public infrastructure topics related to the Sustainable Development goals, such as power stations, water infrastructure, etc
  • Action and stories by indigenous communities, underrepresented people, and women seeking climate justice and human rights defense. 100s of activists die every year fighting for visibility of these issues in contexts where we have communities. 
  • Industries and economic practices implicated in the radical economic changes required for a sustainable future.

And those are just the most glaring gaps that are well researched by the communities of experts and journalists focused on the climate crises — there are many more. In my volunteer time, I have documented some of the other gaps I have found over on English Wikipedia’s WikiProject Climate Change.

The Sustainable Development Goals and their many climate intersections are also the opportunity of the moment: there is a groundswell of organizations focused on evidence-based communication, and international and local funders looking for high impact projects. As part of my work at the Wikimedia Foundation and participation in Open Climate, I have observed a number of funding opportunities, job openings and potential partnerships well within the Wikimedia movement’s scope go unsupported. Or I have seen projects implemented in such a way that they will not have lasting and value for the public. Organizations are even getting funding to work on Wikimedia, without many movement connections.

Institutions around the world are looking for ways to communicate and educate the global population about climate change and sustainability — and there are not enough organizations ready to provide high impact, and truly global, projects. Projects like WikiLovesSDGs and Wiki4Climate, alongside larger calls to action like WikiForHumanRights barely scratch the potential of the collaborations we could grow (for a full list of documented activities see on Meta). 

We have a huge multilingual advantage

If you are primarily an English speaker and have been paying attention to the news at all in the last few years, you might find what I am saying rather boring: the causes and impacts of climate change, and the ability for us to address them is rather normal conversation. In the English-speaking world, climate communication is at least readily accessible and making progress against disinformation. 

This simply is not true in many other languages; reputation in academic communities is frequently connected to Global North institutes and English, and the career incentive for academics is to disseminate their scholarship in English, or at best with limited translation. Even larger languages are full of communication gaps around the climate crises, like Spanish (in media and public sectors), Portuguese (Brazil and Portugal) and Arabic. This is not a crisis only solved by highly educated multilingual experts, but the current science communication environment assumes that. 

Several parts of the youth movement feel like they have to solve the language gap problem. The youth movement has become very focused on developing isolated blogs, insider communications and social media assets for Tik Tok and Instagram. They are frequently missing the key long-term, persistent, multilingual and broad-public content that we offer. Moreover, these platforms are susceptible to spreading harm, including spreading misinformation and increasing the mental health burden of climate on youth.

We know how to make lasting, multilingual, culturally appropriate, high impact content — this is our expertise. If we could harness just a fraction of the energy that thousands of climate communicators are going to put into translating content for local audiences, our smaller language communities could explode with participants. 

Anticipating confusion, creating information for decisions 

A recent spike in pageviews on the “Climate change in South Africa” article on English Wikipedia, at around the same time that a report was published by the government there.

The dire impacts of the climate crises that I describe above are going to create a lot of confusion and questions among our readers. At the very least we can learn from our previous experiences with other dire breaking news, and how they rely on our coverage. I think we can get a small sample of what this might look like in recent heartbreaking experiences of our Russian-language and Ukrainian-language communities (see coverage in the Signpost). Our readers who are interested in the current war in both local and other languages are benefiting from two decades of work, as a movement, creating content about the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region. 

As global public attention pivoted towards the war, every Wikipedia was flooded with reader attention on topics related to CEE, with readers clicking through to all kinds of context (on English Wikipedia for example). We have seen this kind of experience of breaking news bringing attention before: the Farmer’s Protests in India, the beginning of the COVID Pandemic, the Arab Spring, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, etc. Each time humans experience a sudden burst of unexpected crises — a certain segment of the population will be exploring Wikimedia content. 

The climate crisis is going to be shocking.

From a more proactive, and less reactive perspective, we need to be helpful for the billions of decisions needed for humanity to endure the climate crises. Here are just a few decisions we could influence: 

  • Members of the public and legislators interested in new laws to protect ecosystems against destruction (for example, this recently trending topic in Argentina)
  • A farmer’s choice about whether to grow corn instead of other more climate tolerant crops.
  • A local council-person who received a briefing on how sea level rise will destroy their local economy, trying to figure out the concept of managed retreat that was mentioned by one of the academics at the briefing. A study of policy makers in Argentina, for example, found that most of their policy makers didn’t understand the local impacts of climate change.
  • A tourist reading about their next destination vacation, realizes that international tourism rarely benefits that local community and chooses instead to find something more sustainable in their own community
  • A solar power investor learning about the human rights issues related to cobalt and lithium mining, and needing to purchase a slightly more expensive form of energy storage that uses less conflict-minerals, like pumped water or an iron-oxide battery system. Every year, hundreds of human rights defenders are killed over projects like these, and public knowledge is still scarce.

The number of questions that we are going to need to answer related to the environmental crises abound, they are “glocal” (both global and local) and multilingual in nature and Wikipedia isn’t providing those answers. 

Building a future for sustainability and the environment in our movement? 

An event recently organized with community from South Sudan as part of the #WikiForHumanRights campaign. Community groups around the world have found enthusiastic partners around the world. 

Every time I introduce Wikimedia organizers or other open movement community members to the expansive sustainability-focused opportunities, both in topics and audiences, they immediately find actionable contributions. Also, when I talk to members of the environmental movement, they too have light bulb moments: “oh really, I didn’t realize Wikipedia’s potential for our mission”. The public needs our movement, our public knowledge mission, and our multilingual and multidisciplinary content to address the triple planetary crises

To create this space, to invite the kinds of organizers and editors that I describe in the last two posts, where should we start? We might find some inspiration from other Wikimedia outreach communities. We can look at various parts of the movement that have become well organized around Gender, Education, Medicine or GLAM, and apply some of what they’ve learned about building thematic communities. 

I think there are some really obvious steps: 

  • We need to convene the parts of our movement interested in these topics, and find ways to work together in focused collaboration — the WikiWomenCamps were critical in 2012 and 2017 for forming the Gender Organizing network and practice. 
  • We need to grow the infrastructure on-wiki (like WikiProjects) for guiding new contributors to the most impactful content.
  • We need to build better community spaces for digitally convening and coordinating the network of volunteers  (like Wikimedians for Sustainable Development). 
  • We need to create spaces for community members to learn to speak the language and about the issues of the climate and sustainability movements– the GLAM-Wiki community for example, has had several key moments of community growth when the movement and professional communities have actively talked with each other
  • We need to study how our content is a source of sustainability misinformation, and where we have systemic knowledge gaps that we can address.
  • We need to pilot and document more collaborations with the climate movement to advance their communications goals — there is a passionate, well educated, and communications-savvy environmental movement growing in almost every part of the world that includes career activists, youth leaders, scientists and journalists. We can recruit this public.

Do you want to get started? What can you do? 

Despite how overwhelming the environmental crises are, I believe Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement are powerfully placed to create space for optimism, and to help humanity make decisions for a healthy environment for future generations — and in doing so, we can attract diverse new publics to our public knowledge movement — its a win-win opportunity. 

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