Can YouTube Save the Planet?

Pooling videos can provide instant evidence of global environmental problems.

Sep 1, 2007
Reuben Clements, David Bickford, and David J. Lohman
<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of Navjot Sodhi</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of Navjot Sodhi

It is disheartening that the population at large still remains indifferent to the planet's environmental problems. Part of the reason can be attributed to the public's perceptions on issues such as climate change. An Ipsos MORI poll in the United Kingdom this year found that 56% of people surveyed believed scientists are still questioning climate change.1 Another reason is the continued reluctance of government policy makers to commit to measures that would help create real change. The failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is perhaps the most widely publicized example of this.

There is clearly a pressing need for environmental problems such as global warming to be heard, understood, and acted on worldwide. Traditional media has a significant role in educating people about environmental issues, but dynamic and interactive forms of online content such as blogs may provide more effective means of communicating such messages.2 However, the overly descriptive and esoteric nature of some environmental blogs may reduce their efficacy as public outreach tools. The success of Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth," on the other hand, suggests that the visual appeal of videos might be more successful at increasing environmental awareness.

Scientists are only just beginning to tap into the power of videos. For example, one online scientific journal was recently set up to host video clips that demonstrate molecular biology protocols.3 The public, however, has already developed a huge passion for posting and viewing videos. YouTube (www.youtube.com), arguably the world's most popular online free video-sharing Web site, hosts more than 70 million video clips and is viewed by around 20 million people monthly.

Proponents of environmental conservation should therefore consider broadcasting their findings and messages through YouTube. This platform will allow them to connect and communicate with an audience that primarily consists of 12-17 year olds, the future custodians of the planet. The video commentary function on YouTube even allows scientists to contribute informed opinions on causes of environmental disasters.

How can environmental awareness best be communicated through this medium? We think a wisdom-of-crowds approach will create the most effective message, so we want to propose an experiment. We are calling on scientists around the globe to register with YouTube and post one or more video clips depicting species and habitat loss, regional effects of climate change, or environmentally unfriendly activities that people continue to commit despite repeated warnings.

We, together with the editors of The Scientist, have created a dedicated channel on YouTube to host these videos: www.youtube.com/group/environmentdamage. As an example, we have uploaded a video documenting deforestation within Lore Lindu National Park in Sulawesi, Indonesia (www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL7VTLiPezY). We are asking scientists and environmental commentators to post videos, comment on others, and embed videos in Web sites or blogs to inform the public about this video channel.

In response to the question: What is the one thing, the most urgent thing, that everyone can do to tackle global warming? Al Gore replied: "Well, first of all, learn about it."4 Gathering a series of local videos will create a global lesson of the damage being caused by climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances in a way that would not be possible with one or a few groups of scientists. Providing visual evidence of environmental woes worldwide through YouTube will create a compelling message for the public and governments alike that will be difficult to ignore any longer.

Reuben Clements, David Bickford, and David J. Lohman are at the Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore.

References

1. "'Scepticism' over climate claims," BBC News Online, July 3, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6263690.stm 2. A. Ashlin, R.J. Ladle, "Environmental science adrift in the blogosphere," Science, 312:201, 2006. 3. Journal of Visualized Experiments (www.myjove.com) 4. "So, Al Gore, what's the one thing we can all do to tackle climate change?" The Independent, July 7, 2007.