Time is running out to avert climate catastrophe. To survive, we must confront rampant disinformation
Last year’s UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, sent a much-needed political signal: those on the frontlines of the climate crisis are being heard. The decision to establish a fund to compensate vulnerable countries for the losses and damages they incur due to climate shocks is an important step toward justice.
But there remains much to do. We must urgently and drastically cut emissions. The international community is way off course in meeting the goals of the Paris Accord. Failure to do so spells catastrophe. Cataclysmic weather events are hitting more people, more often, with every passing year. Yet still some seek to delay action.
At the heart of our fight for a livable planet lies an information battle, one we ignore at our peril. The spread of lies about climate change, and the apathy they induce, undermines all other efforts. To survive, humanity must wrest control from those seeking to distract from and delay climate action.
Monday’s release of the IPCC synthesis report is expected to present the most up-to-date knowledge on climate change, offering policymakers the latest science-based options for addressing the climate crisis, covering everything from how and why the climate has changed, to the impacts and risks of climate change, as well as solutions to the climate crisis.
UN communicators will be engaged in translating these findings into accessible information for the public. We are stepping up to compete with savvy disinformation actors who actively distort the science.
Climate lies are nothing new. Decades of denialism by the fossil fuel industry have eroded trust in climate science, and even facts in general. Even now, as you read this, ill-intentioned actors are operating tirelessly across social media, sowing doubt about the climate emergency and its solutions.
Recent developments have emboldened climate ‘inactivists’. Media monitors say hate and lies of all kinds have gotten more traction since Twitter’s acquisition by Elon Musk, including climate disinformation. Twitter insists it hasn’t changed its moderation policies or practices since the takeover. Yet analysts say mass staff layoffs and walkouts has resulted in an explosion of bad behavior and false information.
During the COP27 UN climate talks in November, we saw a spike in conspiracy theories claiming climate change was a scam or a hoax. Uses of the hashtag #climatescam shot up from less than 2,700 a month in the first half of 2022 to 80,000 in July and nearly 193,000 uses in December. The hashtag is still among the top three in the search for ‘climate’.
Earlier this year, it seemed anti-action narratives had largely moved on from outright denial of human-caused warming. The prevalence of extreme floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires has made it harder to deny that our climate is changing. Instead, the aim had been to delay climate action for as long as possible.
Junk science, blame games and personal attacks on activists; these narratives of delay are pushed to tens of millions every day via social media. Now widespread, they are firmly embedded into the conversation on climate. They distract us from the danger. They obscure and drown out calls for action.
We must act now to avoid the worst climate outcomes. The public deserves to know the facts. There is no silver bullet. But let’s start with the obvious and easy steps.
Social media companies have great power and agency and therefore have a vital role to play. Some platforms have already tightened rules to stem the spread of harmful falsehoods about the climate crisis, but we know that enforcement is extremely patchy. This must and can change, immediately.
There are still too many people profiting from climate change denial. False and misleading ads undermining net zero targets or claiming the world needs to continue burning fossil fuels can be found on all social media channels.
Fossil fuel sector-linked entities spent around US $4 million on such paid advertisements on Meta alone in the run-up to and during COP27, a recent analysis by the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition revealed.
Digital platforms should abandon all income from adverts claiming the climate emergency is a hoax or distorting climate science. With mass tragedies unfolding daily, to monetize climate disinformation is complicity in the climate crisis. Climate distortion should not be profitable.
It is not just the tech giants that must step up. All those involved must now wash their hands of greenwashing. PR companies and ad agencies should decline to help fossil fuel companies greenwash their images and use their creative power to promote the transition to renewables instead.
But our call to action is even wider than that. All social media users have the power to make a difference. The simple act of pausing before sharing online can significantly reduce the spread of lies, as can regular fact-checking and courageously calling out falsehoods whenever it’s safe to do so.
Disinformation reporters are investigating disinformation campaigns and exposing the actors and their distribution methods. Editors should make covering disinformation a regular beat.
Algorithms designs can be taught to amplify facts over lies.
And those of us promoting climate action must redouble our efforts to communicate science. We must communicate in ways that restore trust in the scientific evidence that forms our shared understanding of the threat we face and the solutions that can save us.
We don’t have a moment to spare to reduce global emissions by 45% and keep the Paris Agreement goals alive. We can’t let climate disinformation derail our progress.