'Climate misinformation' can jeopardise climate action

'Climate misinformation' can jeopardise climate action

False narratives about a real catastrophe can also weaken public demand for mitigation and adaptation measures, notes the IPCC’s sixth assessment report

Shailendra YashwantUpdated: Sunday, March 12, 2023, 10:38 PM IST
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Representational image/ Climate change slogan | Markus Spiske

Last week when the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) declared that India has just experienced its warmest February in 122 years, I was forwarded a WhatsApp video making a false claim that “heat waves like this are normal and happen every 1500 years”. There’s a high likelihood that if you use WhatsApp or other social media, you’ve come up against similar climate disinformation, from “Global warming is not happening” to “Climate change has happened before”.

The terms “climate disinformation” and “climate misinformation” describe deceptive or misleading information that casts doubt on the existence or effects of climate change, the undeniable contribution of human activity to climate change, and the necessity of immediate action in accordance with the scientific consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It is now widely known that fossil fuel interests have waged decades-long campaigns to protect their businesses by undermining public trust in climate science and delaying action to avert climate change. Under the guise of climate “scepticism”, the public is bombarded with misinformation that casts doubt on the reality of human-caused global warming. Typically climate disinformation misrepresents scientific data, including by omission or cherry-picking, in order to erode trust in climate science, climate-focused institutions, experts, and solutions.

Harvard science historians Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes looked at the climate change communications of oil giant ExxonMobil from 1977 and 2014. They found that 80% of the company’s internal documents acknowledged climate change as real and caused by humans at the same time that 81% of its public materials cast doubt on the reality of global warming. These findings have led to a number of lawsuits to hold fossil fuels companies accountable for the climate crisis that they knowingly created and deliberately downplayed.

Climate misinformation can jeopardise climate action and weaken public demand for mitigation and adaptation measures, notes the IPCC’s sixth assessment report (AR6), the largest global assessment of the impacts of climate change and the strategies to adapt to it. The IPCC Working Group III (WG III) report, released last year noted, “Accurate transference of the climate science has been undermined significantly by climate change counter-movements, in both legacy and new/social media environments through misinformation, including about the causes and consequences of climate change,” said the report.

The WG III report further acknowledged the role of misinformation in fuelling polarisation, saying, “Together with the proliferation of suspicions of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, some traditional and social media contents have fuelled polarisation and partisan divides on climate change in many countries.”

In a study, published by the journal Nature Scientific Reports, ‘Computer assisted classification of contrarian claims about climate change’, researchers identified a wide array of dubious climate claims, then programmed a computer to recognise them. Looking at climate-related content from 33 prominent climate contrarian blogs and 20 conservative think tanks produced between 1998 and 2020, the team came up with five major themes of climate misinformation, Global warming is not happening; Human-produced greenhouse gases are not causing global warming; Climate impacts are not bad; Climate solutions won’t work; and Climate science or scientists are unreliable.

The analysis also exposed how those spreading climate misinformation have switched over time from science denial—that is, claiming that climate science isn’t reliable—to solutions denial—the claim that solutions to slow or otherwise respond to climate change won’t work.

We are already seeing false narratives of how “fossil fuels are necessary” to “renewable energy is unreliable” doing rounds ahead of the next IPCC report to be launched on 20 March 2023. These statements are blatantly false; such efforts to undermine science can jeopardise climate action and weaken public demand for mitigation and adaptation measures.

Justin Farrell, a professor of sociology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and lead author of ‘Evidence-based strategies to combat scientific misinformation’ suggests that it might be possible to inoculate the public against misinformation by prebunking myths and falsehoods i.e countering potential misinformation by warning people against it before it is disseminated. As Farrell says, “Similar to how a vaccine builds antibodies to resist a virus a person might encounter, attitudinal inoculation messages warn people that misinformation is coming, and arm them with a counter-argument to resist that misinformation.”

Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a global coalition of anti-disnfo groups have called upon big tech and media houses to produce plans to eliminate the spread of climate disinformation on their platforms with actions such as altering algorithms that amplify climate falsehoods to banning ad and content with false claims about climate change. Platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest have already begun taking steps to address climate disinformation on their sites, acknowledging that false information must be neutralised in real time as it is produced and disseminated.

(Shailendra Yashwant is an independent environmental photojournalist and climate communications consultant)

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