Rio 2016: a beacon of hope for the global climate movement?

The earth's population woke up this morning (8 August) to the news that humanity has overshot its annual budget for natural resources four months early. But will the daunting realisations of 'Earth Overshoot Day' finally shift into the mainstream thanks to high-profile events such as the Rio 2016 Olympics?

The Olympic Games have the ability to whip up a media frenzy quite unlike any other global event. For the Opening Ceremony, an estimated three billion people watched as Rio’s Maracana stadium was transformed into a cultural symphony of colour and history, amidst a backdrop of political protesting and climate concerns.

Rio 2016: How sustainable is the greatest show on Earth?

While perhaps not as glamourous (and on a much smaller budget) than the London 2012 Olympics, the 2016 ceremony on Friday evening (5 August) succeeded in creating a global platform to highlight the looming consequences of climate change.

One segment of the ceremony was dedicated entirely to climate change. Featuring video messages and powerful motifs about deforestation and rising sea levels, the section even alluded to University of Reading professor Ed Hawkins’ visual illustration of how global temperatures are spiralling out of control.

But, in a world where countries are attempting to ratify a global agreement to limit global warming, surely this message should just be feeding a rhetoric? The fact that, less than three days later, news broke that the earth’s population had already used up its annual allocation of natural resources suggests otherwise.

While individuals were busy tweeting about the ‘Olympic Nan‘, others were soon learning that Earth’s Overshoot Day – the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that same year – had moved from early October in 2000 to 8 August in 2016. And, as the news gets more severe, so does the reaction.


The past three years have driven home the prominence that Overshoot day has on social media, as Twitter timelines get littered with phrases such as “wake-up call” and “time to act”. But, digging deeper into the trends, we see that climate change’s presence under the global spotlight hasn’t been aided by a growing sense of urgency amongst humanity, but rather when the subject of climate is given time during a high-profile event to resonate with a global audience.

As Rio gave climate change its 15 minutes of fame, the world’s population took notice. During and in the immediate aftermath of that climate change video played out at the Opening Ceremony, search interest for topics such as rising sea levels reached record highs (as illustrated in the graph below). Interestingly, peak search interest for global warming occurred not only during the ceremony, but also this morning, likely as a result of the Overshoot Day confirmation.




The DiCaprio effect

This isn’t the only high-profile occurrence of climate change news being absorbed by the masses after a particular event. On 29 February this year, actor Leonardo DiCaprio ended his 22-year wait to finally take home an Oscar, and used his acceptance speech to urge people across the globe to act on the “urgent threat” of climate change.

DiCaprio has established himself as a climate activist over the years, acting as a UN Messenger of Peace. And when DiCaprio speaks, people tend to listen. His Oscars acceptance speech reached 34.5 million people, which then imploded further on social media.

Research published last week has revealed that after the Oscars, tweets including the phrases “global warming” or “climate change” rocketed by 636%. The buzz around DiCaprio’s speech even managed to eclipse coverage of Earth Day and the Paris Accord.

Events like the Oscars and the Olympics are clearly raising awareness of climate change, but with Overshoot Day taking place five days earlier than last year, we now seem to have entered a ‘conscious tipping point’ that has seen ignorance on the subject dissolve, but wholesale action to remedy it hard to find.

Ratification process

With this in mind it, 2016 is emerging as a pivotal year for climate action, to the point where an earlier occurrence of Overshoot Day for 2017 could hopefully be avoided. Of course, the fate of the climate battle is now largely tied-down in the ratification process of the Paris Agreement.

In order for that Paris deal to come into force – and UN heavyweights are pushing for it to do so this year – 55 countries, representing 55% of global emissions, need to ratify it. So far, official UN figures reveal that 22 states accounting for just 1.08% of global emissions have ratified the deal.

However, according to the tally of pledges by the Marshall Islands, countries representing 54% of global emissions have signified their intentions to ratify the deal this year. The world’s largest two emitters, China and the US, have agreed to ratify the deal this year and they account for more than a third of global emissions.

While the European Union’s efforts to ratify the deal have been somewhat clouded by the Brexit vote, the Union recently insisted it is “doing its homework” to pass the deal this year.

Things become a little murkier in the UK, though. Alongside a climbing carbon footprint, Britain has been accused of “betraying” the climate agreement. And, as the nation struggles to get its own green policies in order, perhaps now is the time for the UK’s celebrities and mega-events re-animate the climate movement once again.

Matt Mace

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