A three part article discussing the increasing risk, forms of climate misinformation and growing business of greenwashing and its relationship with climate misinformation.
Climate misinformation stymies global collaboration on climate action
As the curtain falls on COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh, political commentators and climate activists will be busy dissecting the outcomes from this, as expected, highly contentious UN climate summit.
On one hand, we can be hopeful; the participating nations agreed to set up a loss and damages fund, with rich nations providing financial assistance to countries most impacted by climate crisis. Details of the deal will emerge over the next few weeks, but the importance of this agreement in bolstering global collaboration on climate action is evident.
On the other hand, we have disappointment, there remains a failure of participating nations to build a concrete path to cut carbon emissions and phase out fossil fuels.
Overall? COP27 moves us forward, but in no way enough.
So what is the implication of this lack of progress?
The growing risk
Amongst the plethora of reasons why the global system is not drastically reducing carbon emissions, we believe climate misinformation is a growing concern. The increase in misinformation narratives being advanced about climate action threatens the public mandate many nations are seeking to increase their commitments to fight climate change and undermines many government efforts to enact positive action. The pace at which climate misinformation has proliferated and its increasing influence has made it a systemic and pernicious problem which needs to be addressed.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted this growing risk in a report released in Feb 2022 and stated that misinformation from media outlets, disinformation campaigns from activists, and the “politicisation of science” are important barriers to action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Climate misinformation delays action and leads to incremental change at a time when our ecological crisis demands a transformational and decisive change in order to keep 1.5C alive.
The House of Lords (HOL) Environment and Climate Change Committee echoed these sentiments when they investigated how misleading information can be weaponized, especially at times like COP. Climate misinformation finds fertile ground to propagate in online spaces. During COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, an estimated 10 million unique tweets were sent covering the conference. Their research found that climate-sceptic discussions received far more engagement than COP supporters (around twelve times more), with 60% of the climate sceptic posts actively and explicitly attacking efforts to fight climate change. Other studies corroborate these conclusions. In fact, many of the top climate influencers are overwhelming climate sceptics, with several of the most popular accounts not believing climate change is real. We can see that posts denying climate change or calling it a hoax influenced public opinion far more than posts and articles by climate scientists and activists. A small but vocal minority was able to create more engagement and spread their messages more widely.
This is a significant problem for climate activists and politicians who seek to influence national and global initiatives to limit the effects of climate change.
Climate misinformation in its many forms
Whilst climate-deniers have and continue to dominate this space; we also note that climate misinformation is evolving to become more sophisticated in its approach and narratives.
The record-breaking natural disasters experienced over 2022 led to greater awareness of the climate crisis amongst the public, but they also created significant misinformation narratives that affected the political consensus within affected countries and hampered their ability to enact meaningful change.
Misinformation outlets in Germany, Portugal, and the wider EU frequently cast doubt on the efficacy of mitigation and adaptation policies. One particular conspiracy theory focused on how weather maps are ‘spreading panic’ by showing exaggerated colours to represent current temperatures. Another source discussed how polar sea ice showed little to no decline over the past four decades and that climate models are wrong.
Common misinformation campaigns have shifted their discourse to create confusion over how much the cost of transition to net zero will be and who will bear that cost, concealing any potential benefits from the transition. Certain online campaigns in the UK have promoted the idea that wind and solar industries are not good for the environment and state how “millions of tonnes of toxic wind turbine blades are being dumped in landfills.” This is not an isolated incident. The opposition to renewable energy is spreading across the world and is causing delays and cancellations to crucial green energy projects.
These narratives become more burdensome when those people who need to adapt are misled by this misinformation. People and behaviour need to change, but most people underestimate what they need to do to create this meaningful change. Misinformation fuels this indecision and also generates apathy towards the possible changes that need to be made.
The business of greenwashing and climate misinformation
As the ESG movement strengthens, businesses are coming under increased scrutiny over their greenwashing claims. Greenwashing, even if it unintentional, misleads governments and institutions on the progress being made towards net zero goals.
This was quite apparent at COP27, which was attended by over 600 delegates representing oil and gas industries. Whilst it is important that fossil fuel companies attend this global climate conference as they play a crucial role in decarbonising the energy industry, their influence and lobbying power at these conferences should be examined. The sheer number of fossil fuel delegates in attendance has cast doubt on the ability of COP to enact any meaningful policy recommendations. It is clear that fossil fuel companies are not shifting to renewables fast enough, despite the record windfall revenues they generated this year as energy prices rose. In fact, many fossil fuel companies are using the same tactics employed by the tobacco industry to delay action and deflect blame.
The optics surrounding COP27 were not helped by Coca-Cola sponsoring the conference. The company has been described as the world’s largest polluter, and their presence as sponsor of an organisation designed to tackle pollution might appear dubious, especially when their production of plastics is increasing every year. Many other strategic business partners at COP27 have had a history of greenwashing, creating ground for more misinformation to spread. Whilst these organisations should not, by any means, be banned from climate negotiations, they need to be held more accountable for their climate actions.
As climate misinformation evolves and becomes more influential, organisations and governments need to proactively build counter-narrative and inoculation strategies to prevent its citizens from becoming disillusioned or worse, hostile.