The science about the climate crisis is unequivocal, but a recent report shows a rise in misinformation about the topic.
Katie CollinsSenior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
In the past year, climate science has been clearer than ever. Three recent reports from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that we must make urgent changes. If not, we are on a "highway to hell," as UN Secretary General António Guterres said last week. At the same time, there has has been an uptick in those refusing to believe what the evidence is spelling out.
For as long as scientists have been warning us about climate change, there have been people denying the problem exists. But in the face of mounting scientific proof and real-world impacts, denialism had become a fringe viewpoint. That changed in 2022, Jennie King, a representative from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, told reporters on Tuesday at the UN COP27climate summit after releasing a report about the impacts of climate disinformation on public perception.
"We are now seeing out-and-out denial is making an absolute comeback," she said.
The increase in climate denialism can be linked to a wider embrace of conspiracy theories that includes false ideas about everything from Russia's war in Ukraine to the COVID-19 vaccines. Misinformation around politics and the widely debunked notion of election fraud have sowed mistrust in democracy in the US. That willingness to ignore facts and science has meant more audiences are receptive to dismissing the notion of a climate crisis.
"It's not necessarily because there's a direct climate link, it's more because it's an opportunity to piggyback on news cycle events and to make sure that those ideas are laundered into the mainstream and become normalized for the mainstream audience," King said.
It's terrible timing for the future of humanity. This week, as policymakers gather in Egypt for COP27 to collaborate on the urgent challenge of fighting the climate crisis, they are embracing all the scientific evidence out there that shows humans have caused changes to the planet through the emissions of greenhouse gases. People from vulnerable countries have brought to the conference stories about the impact of the climate crisis they're seeing at home, which include an increase in the frequency and intensity of devastating weather events resulting in loss of livelihoods and lives, or displacing them and their communities.
But there are many forces out there seeking to undermine the scientific facts using lobbying, advertising and disinformation campaigns -- either for political reasons or to delay our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for profit. And their efforts are taking hold.
In the US, 46% of survey respondents said they thought climate change was not caused by human activity, and 23% said that they believed climate change is a hoax made up by the World Economic Forum. Roughly a quarter of Americans surveyed believe that the country can't afford to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and that the world in fact doesn't need to decarbonize and achieve net zero at all to ensure the future welfare and prosperity of humans.
Another finding of the survey showed that many people believe that the global cost-of-living crisis is caused by their government's net-zero policies, rather than high global energy prices due to Russia's war in Ukraine. Even though renewable energy's cost is competitive with energy from fossil fuels, and projections suggest significant, continued damage to the global economy if we don't transition away from fossil fuels, some also believe that their countries can't afford to make the change.
This shows a massive disconnect between the reality of the climate crisis, which is already exerting huge pressure on governments, economies and people around the world, and many people's understanding of what is happening. There is widespread agreement not only among scientists, but economists, governments, industry and others, that reaching net zero is critical for limiting planetary temperatures from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius. To allow warming to exceed this limit will have far-reaching consequences, including making many areas of the Earth uninhabitable and causing mass migration, leading to instability and conflict.
Disinformation is at the root of many false beliefs about climate, and there are "perverse incentives" for its creation, said Harriet Kingaby from ACT Climate Labs and the Conscious Advertising Network. Much of it originates from lobby groups from big associations that act as a front for multiple fossil fuel companies, added King. Sometimes they will have as many as 850 ads running on a given day, which together achieve tens of millions of impressions that aim to confuse the public about viable solutions to the climate crisis.
Tech companies need to step up
As a result of the survey, leading climate experts and major advertisers on Tuesday called upon tech companies, along with the UN and presidency of the COP27 climate summit, to tackle the growing problem of disinformation. In an open letter, they addressed the CEOs of Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest and Reddit asking them:
To accept a universal definition of climate mis/disinformation that encompasses the misrepresentation of scientific evidence and the promotion of false solutions.
To produce and publicize a plan to tackle climate mis/disinformation on platforms, while advertising their zero-tolerance policy to the public.
To not publish any ads that include climate mis/disinformation.
To share internal research on the spread of climate mis/disinformation on their platforms.
All companies named in the letter have been contacted for comment.
Amplification is a major problem that platforms need to tackle, said King. If tech companies are willing to look at the systemic issues with the architecture of their platforms they are more likely to be identify the small number of verified accounts responsible for the spread of most climate disinformation and limit them, rather than playing content moderation Whack-A-Mole with hundreds of thousands of data points.
"We're not talking about censorship of free speech, but we're talking about not giving them the biggest megaphone that has ever existed in the history of mankind," she said.
Some platforms, including Google and Pinterest, have already taken great strides to put climate disinformation policies in place, said Kingaby. But other platforms such as Twitter, which is going through the biggest upheaval in its history with the arrival of new owner and CEO Elon Musk, are more likely to struggle to keep a handle on disinformation.
Twitter's content moderation policies have not yet been updated, said Jake Dubbins from the Conscious Advertising Network. But the departures of many leaders in trust and safety and sustainability parts of the company are likely to have a knock-on impact on the enforcement of those policies, he added. "There are lots of groups testing and pushing the boundaries because of the free speech narratives coming from Twitter," he said.
The damage done by warping people's perception of the science is more than just a simple difference of opinions. In a February report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authors identified misleading information about the scientific reality of the climate crisis as a barrier to climate action, and having "negative implications for climate policy."
"Climate mis- and disinformation are a huge threat to everything that we are trying to achieve here today at this conference," said Kingaby. "We must get a handle on it as quickly as possible."