Climate disinformation is killing the planet


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Advisor at Defend Democracy, Lecturer at the Institute for Security Governance and former Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

Next week the United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh amid increasingly extreme climate impacts worldwide as climate change has become a harsh lived experience for millions. And yet despite a global scientific consensus based on decades of research and pledges from most of the world’s governments, progress on reaching climate goals remains stagnant.

Now in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impacts on global energy markets, we face possible backsliding as global warming looks set to break the agreed 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperature limit agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

A major reason why progress on climate action has been so delayed is that decades of disinformation have slowed progress on addressing climate change and are still disrupting our ability to implement the Paris Agreement.

Instead of acknowledging the harmful effects of their industries and committing to reducing carbon emissions, many of the world’s major fossil fuel companies have misled the public about climate science and climate action – and they continue to do so today.

Most social media sites lack policies on climate change disinformation and misinformation

In other cases, it’s the news media and tech companies that feed the disinformation narrative. Recent studies indicate that media sites feature climate contrarians in 49% more media articles than they do actual scientists. Among mainstream media sites, climate deniers are featured 1% more often than climate scientists, which results in a public that cannot make up its mind about the seriousness of the climate crisis.

A newly-released study by ProPublica shows that Google is still making revenue by and for some of the internet’s worst promoters of climate change disinformation in Europe, Latin America and Africa.

Most social media sites lack policies on climate change disinformation and misinformation. For example, YouTube has adopted climate expert-informed definitions of climate disinformation, while Facebook, TikTok and Twitter have not.

In February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cited mis- and disinformation as key barriers to climate action but it has yet to be treated as a priority by the international community. According to the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), this problem is getting even worse within Europe.

We’ve seen disinformation divide our societies and erode trust among people and their governments

Disinformation kills. Without an urgent global effort to address disinformation about climate, our efforts will continue to stall and the planet will see global temperatures continue to rise, leading to catastrophic impacts to most major global coastal cities and riparian regions. We’re already experiencing the impacts as flooding and droughts displace millions and impact the global food supply.

We’ve seen disinformation attack our democracies and our ability to tackle health threats such as measles and the coronavirus. We’ve seen disinformation divide our societies and erode trust among people and their governments. In turn, we’ve countered this disinformation with the utmost urgency, committing significant political will and resources. But this has not yet been the case for climate disinformation.

We’ve tolerated science denial on climate change for so many years that it’s little wonder we’ve faced such challenges in dealing with science denial related to the coronavirus and vaccines.

Our societies have proven they can tackle disinformation when they make it an urgent priority, but we have yet to treat climate disinformation with the urgency and resources that it requires.

Civil society should hold the news media accountable

COP27 is the ideal moment for governments, institutions, private companies and civil society to urgently commit to addressing climate disinformation and misinformation so that we can finally take the necessary steps on climate action and prevent outcomes that could leave significant parts of our planet uninhabitable.

Firstly, we must take climate disinformation and misinformation seriously and urgently apply the necessary political attention and resources it deserves. Current EU and global efforts have proven insufficient and remain under-resourced.

Secondly, we must focus on not only continued education efforts but also taking action against companies that propagate climate disinformation, while civil society should hold the news media accountable for giving an elevated and sometimes uncritical platform to climate change deniers and their harmful messages.

Next, Google and other sites must demonetise climate disinformation and stop profiting from ads that promote these harmful narratives. Furthermore, we must urge social media sites to adopt and enforce science-informed climate disinformation and misinformation policies similar to those adopted to address pandemic disinformation.

We have a unique opportunity to effectively change the public narrative on climate change through intergenerational dialogue

Facts won’t save us. As with all efforts to counter disinformation, our messaging on climate change and climate action is most effective when it is intimately relatable and satisfying to citizens and delivered by someone they know and trust. This means local leaders, trusted friends, neighbours and family members.

We can overcome resistance to climate science and climate action. Every poll indicates that younger people believe and understand climate science while older and middle-aged citizens tend to be more sceptical. Thus, we have a unique opportunity to effectively change the public narrative on climate change through intergenerational dialogue. People with ‘personal traction’ have the most success in convincing disinformation believers to consider other views.

So, we should also support grassroots efforts by local leaders and younger citizens who can engage older generations on climate change and forge a new public consensus that can remove the obstacles to progress on climate action.

The stakes are too high, we must act now.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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