The hindrance climate misinformation has on international collaboration, the many forms it comes in, and the secret harm of greenwashing.
The 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) began with hope. More than 100 heads of state gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to address one of the world’s biggest problems: emissions.
Indeed, at first glance it ended with hope. To start, participating nations agreed to set up a ‘loss and damages fund’. This fund ensures wealthy nations provide financial assistance to countries most impacted by the climate crisis. While details of the deal are set to emerge, it’s a positive step for global collaboration in adapting to the climate crisis.
However, disappointment lies in the lack of mitigation. Deals have been struck to assist struggling countries, but where is the concrete path to cut carbon emissions? Where, we ask, is the plan to phase out fossil fuels?
Therefore, the overall consensus is: COP27 moves us forward, but not far enough.
So what is the implication of this lack of progress?
There are many reasons why the global system is not drastically reducing carbon emissions. Infrastructure, resources, and greed are all renowned to stagger the rate of progress. But what of misinformation?
In the sphere of climate change, misinformation narratives are increasing. And they are systemic. The concerning problem is, when these narratives are left unaddressed, seeing them spread can lead to potentially devastating circumstances. In this context, misinformation narratives have a ripple effect. First, they threaten the public mandate that many nations seek to increase their commitments to fight climate change. This leads to government efforts to enact positive action being undermined.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted this growing risk in a report released in Feb 2022. Barriers to mitigation and adaptation, they state, are misinformation from media outlets, disinformation campaigns, and the “politicisation of science”. At a time when our impending ecological crisis demands transformational change and fast, climate misinformation delays action. Change, then, becomes incremental – rather than monumental.
Echoing these sentiments was The House of Lords (HOL) Environment and Climate Change Committee when they investigated how misleading information can be weaponized, especially at times like COP. Such information multiplies in online spaces. For instance, during COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, an estimated 10 million unique tweets were sent covering the conference. HOL 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. Scepticism, as we know, breeds discussion.
Other studies corroborate these conclusions. An array of top climate influencers are overwhelming climate sceptics. Several even claim they do not believe climate change is real. Somewhat dangerously, data suggests that posts calling climate change a hoax influenced public opinion far more than posts by climate scientists and activists. Indeed, 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 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. However, they also created significant misinformation narratives, affecting political consensus and hampering 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. By creating confusion over how much the cost of transition to net zero will be and who will bear that cost, they often conceal any potential benefits from the transition. Even in the UK, online campaigns promoted the idea that wind and solar industries are not good for the environment and stated that “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 the very 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 possible – and necessary – change.
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 what progress is actually being made towards net zero goals.
This was quite apparent at COP27, which was attended by over 600 delegates representing oil and gas industries. While it is important that fossil fuel companies do attend this global climate conference, 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 public perception of COP27 was 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 must be held more accountable for their climate actions.
As climate misinformation evolves, so too must governments and influential organisations. They need to proactively build counter-narrative strategies to prevent its citizens from becoming disillusioned or worse, hostile.
Lately, the hostility has continued, in Oxford’s anti-LTN protests. Read more about them here. Alternatively, see head of Lynn Planet, Samar Khan’s, critique on COP27’s ‘woefully inadequate’ and painfully optimistic carbon goals here.