When Louis Levanti woke up one morning last September, climate change wasn’t on his mind. “I was never huge into researching climate change, but I was aware that it is real.” So when the 24-year-old TikTok creator, who lives with his parents on Long Island, opened his phone and saw something about a clock being unveiled, he wasn’t initially interested. “I rolled my eyes thinking it had something to do with the stock market.”
The Climate Clock, in Union Square in New York City, counts down how much time we have left to act before climate change is irreversible. Levanti, who normally posts videos with topics like “weird food that celebrities like to eat” or “annoying things people do at the gym,” was distressed, and he immediately decided to make a TikTok video about it. “It’s a problem that can’t be ignored,” he said. “Why not responsibly use my big platform to educate people and wake some people up the way I was?”
In the TikTok video, Levanti, superimposed over an image of Earth on fire, says, “Hey, stop scrolling. Our planet is fucking dying.” It’s gotten over 314,000 views and been shared nearly 14,000 times. There are over 5,000 comments, some of which are heartbreaking: “I am 13, does that mean my future children will suffer.” “It’s sad that younger people have to suffer because of this.”
Levanti says that it distressed him to read the comments, especially the ones from younger users. “There are young kids on this app that won’t be able to experience this planet in the way I have, and I am only 24, so I’ve barely experienced it.”
A Climate Discussion Is Happening on TikTok
The world is facing a climate change problem, and climate change is facing a communication problem. The complexities and hypotheticals of climate science do not translate well to an audience who just wants to know whether the dress was blue or white. And yet, on TikTok, one of the world’s most active communication platforms, climate change is a rapidly growing topic. The hashtag #ForClimate has over 533 million views. A video showing a girl singing, “We’re killing the earth and that’s really fun, nobody believes us because we are young,” has over 6.4 million likes. Every day, thousands of mostly Gen Z content creators 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 looking at starving polar bears, learn about environmental racism, and see scientists working in Antarctica.
The idea that a bunch of TikTok users can change the world, while seemingly preposterous, 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 show. Over a million tickets were requested; less than 7,000 people attended. It was a public humiliation for Trump and a win for TikTok. When George Floyd’s murder sparked public outrage, TikTok creators flooded the platform with #BlackLivesMatter content. Abortion clinic defenders are taking videos of religious protesters and posting them on TikTok to support abortion rights. We’re already seeing TikTok users pushing for real, grassroots social change.
Thomas Schinko, the deputy director of the Risk and Resilience research program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, says the storytelling aspect of TikTok is what makes it so effective. “From our research experience we know that storytelling is key for communicating the climate crisis in a way that can lead to taking 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.”