By Sooraj Shah, Class of 2024
Figure 1 As Covid-19 pandemic grows, concerns for climate change dwindle
The COVID-19 pandemic has been featured on every television and newspaper since early 2020. Social media platforms were also covered with news about the virus including deaths, cases, and variants. As COVID grew, the coverage revolving around other public concerns seemingly took a back seat, one of these being climate change. A study led by Dr. Oleg Smirnov, a professor within the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University, focused on how COVID-19 discussions on Twitter wiped out the climate change crisis.
Smirnov used a theory developed by Dr. Elke Weber, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, called the “finite pool of worry.” The theory states that when a negative situation occurs in the midst of a current one, people tend to focus on only one at a time in order to minimize worry. In order to test this theory, Smirnov compared over 18 million total daily and weekly tweets in relation to climate change and the covid pandemic. Each tweet was labeled as positive, negative, or neutral, and was rated an emotion.
The results showed that climate change related tweets decreased from 8 million to 5 million from 2019 to 2020, and then increased to 5.3 million in 2021. During these periods, the number of Twitter users seemingly increased, displaying an increasing decrease in public concern about climate change. While many factors like drastic climate events, Greta Thunberg’s speech, and less news coverage may have artificially inflated the tweets about climate change prior to COVID, Twitter serves as a major platform for climate change and environmental discussions. The observed increase in emotion toward COVID-19 that is reciprocally connected to emotion in climate change is concerning, as it shows a decrease in urgency about the climate change crisis.
Smirnov believes the pandemic caused climate change to feel like a more distant issue, and that the finite pool of worry found most Twitter users turning to the pandemic as the more pressing matter. Pushing climate change to the side will only make the magnitude of the issue greater in the coming years. The goal of future research will include looking to find ways to reignite the concern for climate change.
Smirnov, Oleg, and Pei-Hsun Hsieh. “Covid-19, Climate Change, and the Finite Pool of Worry in 2019 to 2021 Twitter Discussions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 119, no. 43, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2210988119.