How does disinformation threaten climate progress?

05 October, 2022

Posted by: Njango Njung'e

 How does disinformation threaten climate progress?

Category : COP27 | tags:

Climate misinformation thwarts action and fuels divisions 

One of the biggest threats to fast climate action is the rampant spread of climate disinformation and misinformation. 

Shared through social media platforms and search engines, tailored to users through algorithms, misinformation and disinformation is raising doubts and fears about the human cause of climate change, the need for action, the credibility of science and the impacts of the real zero transition. 

Researchers found a significant rise in disinformation during last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, and worry that the continued spread going into this November’s COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh will continue to fuel divisions and thwart action.

Here’s what you need to know about climate disinformation and misinformation. 


What is climate disinformation, and how does it affect vulnerable and African countries in particular? 

Climate disinformation and misinformation refers to deceptive and misleading content that undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, the human causes of it, and the urgency of action, according to Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD). Disinformation can include misrepresentations or omissions of scientific data, or can be falsely publicised as efforts to support climate change goals, when in fact they are contravening scientific consensus.

At a time when people increasingly base their opinions on algorithm-curated content, climate disinformation poses a major threat to climate action. Rather than denying the existence of human-induced climate change, it casts scepticism on the need for action and raises fears about its consequences. 

In a study of a climate-sceptic user’s experience on Facebook, for example, Global Witness found that the algorithm quickly recommended pages suggesting that the climate crisis is a hoax, rising temperatures are part of natural cycles, warming models are inaccurate and mitigation solutions won’t work or benefit society.

Ultimately, the spread of disinformation and misinformation is delaying climate action even as the climate crisis weakens economic security, health and safety for people around the world. The most at-risk countries, including in Africa, feel the worst impacts of climate disinformation even if they see and believe the effects of climate change on their lives and livelihoods. 


What is the impact of disinformation on climate change, and why should it be addressed at COP27? 

Climate disinformation is diluting public demand for urgent climate action. It’s raising doubts about the reality of climate change, the case for action and the credentials of scientists, according to Carbon Brief

COP26 saw an increase in climate disinformation. It was a useful moment to capture public attention – especially in English-speaking markets such as the UK and US, where scepticism has been prevalent. The doubts it raised are spilling into domestic policy stances, causing backsliding even in countries that seemed most ambitious. 

This comes as the economic impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns, Russia’s war in Ukraine and extreme weather are pushing up the costs of energy, food and living. 

COP27 will highlight the urgent need to make climate action a priority in efforts to tackle this wider economic crisis – to help the poorest countries adapt and build resilience to extreme weather, improve food and water security, and cut their reliance on volatile fossil fuel imports. 

The more disinformation spreads during COP27 – especially in Africa and regions most in need of support – the harder it will be for the summit to spur action. 


What does the science say about disinformation? 

The UN’s panel of climate scientists for the first time pointed a finger at the role of disinformation in delaying action, in a report published in February on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability

The report criticised the “vested economic and political interests” that have “generated rhetoric and misinformation that undermines climate science and disregards risk and urgency”. This is causing a “public misperception” of the risks and polarising public support for action, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found. 

Further weakening public support is the tendency of some media to amplify messages that are not supported by science, the report added. It warned that climate scientists and contrarians should not be given equal weight in coverage. 

Disinformation is reducing climate literacy and driving people to reject accurate information and distrust scientists, according to research published in Nature. The majority of this false content comes from a very small group – with 10 Facebook accounts responsible for nearly 70% of disinformation traffic on the site, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate


What are key milestones in the fight against disinformation, and how can they be further cemented?

Big tech companies are coming under increasing pressure to police the spread of disinformation and misinformation, and governments are looking at ways to regulate it. But change is still slow to come. 

Google decided in October 2021 to prohibit ads for, and the monetisation of, climate change denial. However, campaigners are calling on the search engine giant to broaden its definition of climate disinformation to include greenwashing and cherry-picking.

More than 250 high-level actors backed a universal definition of climate disinformation during last year’s COP26 summit. They signed an open letter to the CEOs for technology platforms, the UK’s COP26 presidency and the UN Climate Change secretariat, asking companies to set policies and enforcement similar to what they had set for COVID-19 information in the previous 18 months. 

Still, recent research by CAAD finds that decision-makers and social media platforms are ineffective in combating climate disinformation and protecting discussions on climate action, especially at crucial moments such as COPs. During COP26, for example, solutions such as renewable energy and transport electrification were targeted by disinformation. 

Based on that research, CAAD set out 10 policy recommendations for governments, including to adopt a universal definition of climate disinformation, improve transparency and data access to quantify disinformation trends, restrict misleading fossil fuel advocacy in paid advertising, and enable image-based searches to track viral memes, videos and images.

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