What is climate disinformation and what can we do about it?
Updated: Jul 15
Climate disinformation is an insidious, long-standing, and critical threat to climate action. It can be understood as the deliberate misrepresentation of climate science, data, impacts, mitigation efforts, and urgency.
Last week, ISD, CASM Technology, and the Climate Action Against Disinformation alliance (CAAD) released a report titled ‘Deny, Deceive, Delay: Documenting and Responding to Climate Disinformation at COP26 and Beyond’. The report attempts to quantify the issue of climate disinformation and offers strategies to mitigate the problem.
Through studying social media activity around COP26, the report identified four ‘discourses of delay’, i.e., narratives that discredit proposals for mitigation, adaptation, and transition. These include hypocrisy and elitism; absolutionism; unreliable renewables; and ineffective electric vehicles.
Hypocrisy and Elitism
‘Hypocrisy and elitism’ was identified as the most active discourse theme surrounding COP26. Some social media users argued the conference was elitist and sometimes referenced conspiracy theories including the “New World Order”.
Hypocrisy was argued regarding the climate impact of the event itself. Such ideas often concluded that “COP26 as a process was corrupt, irrelevant and/or had no public mandate, and as such the negotiated outcomes should be discounted”.
The second most active narrative, ‘absolutionism’, contained arguments aiming to absolve certain countries from the responsibility of taking climate action due to ‘failings’ of other countries or groups.
An example of absolutionism could include: “Why should we stop using coal if China are just going to keep using it anyway?”.
This narrative falsely suggests climate action is reliant on only a few countries, and was driven largely by conservative politicians and outlets.
This common narrative questions the reliability and effectiveness of renewable energy sources. The research found it to be consistently popular on social media, with spikes during the Texas power blackouts in February 2021 and in the period shortly before COP26.
During COP26, false claims alleged that the ‘wind died’, forcing the summit to be ‘run on coal’. The claims were fact-checked, but the fact-checking posts were interacted with far fewer times than the false posts were.
Ineffective Electric Vehicles
This narrative was shown to be consistently popular over time but was also prominent during COP26.
A common claim within this narrative was that electric vehicles are worse for the environment than petrol-based vehicles. This is demonstrably false.
While some issues raised regarding the sustainability of electric cars and battery production were valid, experts argue that these issues “shouldn’t be used by the oil industry and their allies as a rallying cry to dismantle EV policy support, or as reason to stop the growth of the EV industry”.
Where is disinformation coming from?
Analysis of the major communities responsible for climate disinformation showed right-wing groups from the US, UK, and Canada to be the largest and most vocal. The other major community was ‘anti-science’. Overlap was seen within this community and anti-vaccine and vaccine-sceptic groups as well as ‘anti-woke’ influencers.
What can be done to mitigate climate disinformation?
The report offers seven policy asks, designed to detect, analyse, and counter climate disinformation. They aim to limit the spread of climate disinformation into public life, thereby minimising its impact on the passing of climate legislation.
1) a. Implement a unified definition of climate mis-and disinformation within key institutions (e.g. UNFCCC, IPCC, COP Presidency); and b. Reflect these criteria in tech company Community Standards and/or Terms of Service.
2) Enforce platform policies against repeat offender accounts.
3) Improve transparency and data access for vetted researchers and regulators on climate misinformation trends, as well as the role played by algorithmic amplification.
4) Limit media exemption loopholes within legislation (e.g. the EU Digital Services Act, UK Online Safety Bill and other proposals).
5) Restrict paid advertising and sponsored content from fossil fuel companies, known front groups for fossil fuel companies, and/or other actors repeatedly found to spread disinformation that contravenes the definition in Policy Ask 1.
6) Ensure better platform labelling on ‘missing context’ and the re-posting of old or recycled content.
7) Enable API image-based searches to support research on viral disinformation.