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Climate Protection Policy in Germany: YouTubers and Scientists united against the Government?

Rezo is a popular 26-year-old YouTuber based in the German university town Aachen, who normally posts funny clips and videos about music on his two YouTube channels. However, on May 18, 2019 he posted an unusually long video, which lasted almost an hour. He called the video “The destruction of the CDU”. The CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands) is the conservative governing party of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Right at the beginning of the video the YouTuber makes it clear that destruction in this sense is only meant metaphorically. He moves on to explain that it is the purpose of the video to present reasons and proof why the governing party actually de-legitimizes itself with its own politics. However, he does not exclusively take a swipe at the conservative party, but also at the party of the Social Democrats (SPD - Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), which form a coalition government with the CDU in Germany.

In the video, Rezo attacks various policies of the governing parties, but the largest part of the video criticises the government's policy regarding climate change. He is disappointed that the government does not act according to the recommendations of climate scientists in the face of climate change. Furthermore, he describes some of the scenarios of what might happen, if climate emissions are not curbed very soon. In order to make his sources transparent, he puts a link in the description of the video to a 13-page document listing all the sources he refers to. In the section concerning climate change he mainly refers to scientific publications in high-ranking scientific journals and scientific reports, for instance, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The video was posted roughly a week before the European elections took place in Germany on May 26, 2019. In the video he calls on his predominantly young followers to participate at the European elections, but to vote for neither the CDU, nor the SPD and particularly not the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland). From his point of view, none of the three parties provide any sustainable solution for dealing with climate change – the AFD would not even acknowledge that there is a problem with climate change at all.

The success of the video (shown below) surprised even Rezo himself. Within a day, it had more than one million views and all the major German news outlets reported on it. Until election, day it was viewed more than 11 million times and reviewed in international news outlets such as The Guardian or The New York Times. Meanwhile, there is even a German Wikipedia entry about the impactful video and its reception in politics, media, science and society. Immediately after the video had been reported in the news, politicians of the conservative governing party heavily attacked the blue-haired YouTuber for spreading false information and fake news.

The conservative party then announced that it would react in the form of a response video. However, briefly after that the conservative party announced on its website that a response video would not be the communicative style of a grand national party and instead released an 11-page PDF-document, in which it tried to refute Rezo’s claims. The different reactions and the time it took for the grand party to answer drastically displays their missing knowledge about YouTube culture and the world of creators as well as users who shape the communication on the platform. Firstly, the party tried to ignore the video, before realizing that this was not possible. Then they tried to talk down Rezo’s expertise and tried to minimise the significance of the presented data.

Soon after the video had been released, various scientists entered the scene – such as the influential female science communicator Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim. She quickly produced and released a video to check the scientific facts presented in Rezo’s work. So far, this video reached almost 2 million views. In addition, the eminent climate scientist Professor Stefan Rahmsdorf and the Professor for Regenerative Energy Systems Volker Quaschning checked the scientific facts presented in the Rezo video, as well as in the response by the CDU and generally backed up the claims that Rezo made in the video.

Quaschning, for instance, writes that he did not find any proofs in the response of the CDU that would substantially disprove the claims made in Rezo’s video concerning climate change. Physicist Christian Thomsen, who is the President of the Technical University of Berlin, also backed Rezo’s claims and states in an opinion piece that Rezo (and other involved YouTubers) would be citing references more correctly and transparently than many of the Federal Ministers and professional politicians who were attacking him. Rezo did not only receive backing from scientists and other experts, but also from many citizens, religious institutions and people from the arts and culture community, such as from the artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele Thomas Oberender.

Meanwhile, Rezo had teamed up with further influential players in the German YouTube scene. On May 24, 2019, two days before election day, an alliance of over 70 popular German YouTubers released another video, shown below, which they simply called “a statement of 70+ YouTubers”. This video is less than three minutes long and contains a single statement read in cut scenes by a very diverse set of YouTubers, with considerably differing points of focus, such as music, beauty, fashion, gaming and a range of other subjects. In addition, the statement posted underneath the video was later signed by more than 90 popular German YouTubers.

The content of this video is very remarkable from a science communication point of view..

In their video statement the YouTubers call on their followers to vote in the European elections, but not to vote for the governing parties or the right-wing AFD, because none of them would act in the sense and logic of science. In the video statement, the YouTube creators explicitly aligned themselves with the scientific experts and also referred to the work of the IPCC and a statement signed by over 26,000 scientists and scholars from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The statement explains that the governments of the three countries are not doing enough to limit global warming, halt the mass extinction of animal and plant species and to preserve the natural basis for life. Taken together, this group of YouTubers has millions of subscribers, friends and followers. So, it was no surprise that this video also made nation-wide headlines and that it has been viewed almost 3 million times within the first two days.

This alliance of YouTubers was also heavily attacked and criticized by various members of the conservative governing party. When the results of the European elections came in two days later, it turned out the governing coalition had experienced massive losses in terms of votes. The biggest winner of the election in Germany was the Green Party, receiving more than a third of the votes of first-time voters. Environmentalism and climate protection have become a major topic in the EU-elections.

The massive gain of votes of the Green Party in the European Election may not be a result of the YouTube videos alone. As there have not been any specific data collections regarding the influence of the videos on the votes, we can only speculate if there was an effect. Many young voters in Germany already held a grudge against the government because their protests against Article 13 of the draft EU Copyright Directive on copyright (which would require internet platforms like YouTube to filter out copyrighted video content) were ridiculed by some conservative politicians. It did not help that the enduring wave of nation-wide Fridays for Future demonstrations for climate protection had not been taken seriously by the government so far.

When the results of the election were official, the reactions coming from the Conservative Party were revealing. Instead of responding to the questions and concerns raised by young people about climate protection and sustainable plans for the future, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of the conservatives, proposed to have a debate on the regulation of political views on the internet during election campaigns. This lead to further furious debates, not just among young people, and a petition campaign against censorship of free speech on the internet.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained silent during this whole debate. It almost took a month until she first spoke out on the issue on June 19.

In a discussion with about 200 teenagers in Goslar, she said that she was not happy with the defensive reaction of her party, when the Rezo video first appeared. When the young people asked her if she thought there were points that Rezo got right in his video she responded, by saying that he was right that the government did indeed break its engagement on climate protection. Climate change now is a major issue across all political parties in Germany.

However, this is not the end of the story. Five days before the newly assembled climate expert commission of the German government met and the third global climate strike took place on Septermber 20, YouTube scientist Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim and Rezo released a video (shown above) in order to mobilize people for the climate strike and to influence politicians’ decision on pricing carbon.

YouTuber’s underestimated influence and how to deal with it..

Several insights could be gained from this episode. A first insight is that the two videos by Rezo and his YouTube allies were enormously influential, and contributed to unleash a still ongoing societal debate about climate protection and anthropogenic climate change.

The content of the video was not only discussed in public media and among social media channels, but also in schools, where it forced teachers to have discussions on climate change and politics. The debate is also about holding the government accountable, for failing to come up with sustainable solutions on how to deal with the global challenge of climate change and neglecting the expertise of scientists and climate researchers.

A second insight is that so far the grand political parties in Germany have not yet learned how to deal productively with debates in social media. Likewise, how to have fruitful dialogues on an eye-level with the citizens, particularly the young ones, who will suffer most by failing on climate targets. In addition, many of the journalists who covered the story did not really know how to evaluate what was happening. Up to now, the consensus in the journalistic world seemed to be that most of what happened in the YouTube universe was not to be taken seriously, and driven by commercial interests or intended to misinform and manipulate audiences. That a colourful assemblage of beauty, gaming, comedy, music and other YouTube creators took sides with science in order to become an influential actor of civil society came as a surprise not only to politicians, but also to journalists and maybe even to scientists.

Science communication via YouTube

Recent events, developments and analyses show that YouTube has become increasingly influential and professional, even when it comes to public science communication.