Climate misinformation refers to the spread of inaccurate information about climate change that can arise from human error, while climate disinformation is driven by a deliberate intent to spread knowingly false information. Regardless of intent, “scientifically misleading information” can have “negative implications for climate policy”, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said.

The Global Risks Report 2024 ranked misinformation and disinformation (on all topics) as the biggest short-term risk to human society, and extreme weather events as the top long-term risk, which implies that obscuring the facts about climate change can be extremely harmful. This is compounded by false information being significantly more likely to be reshared than the truth on social media platforms.

How can climate misinformation be discerned from disinformation?

Climate misinformation can arise from genuine misunderstanding, drawing conclusions from incomplete information or misinterpreting data. Individuals may inadvertently share misconceptions about climate science, which while not intended to be malicious still contributes to the spread of inaccurate information. Climate disinformation is a more insidious form of misinformation given that its distributors are knowingly sharing falsehoods and may intend to protect their own interests to the detriment of others by doing so. For example, they may use deceptive tactics to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change or cast doubt on the severity of its impact.

In practice, it can be difficult to determine whether or not there is deliberate intent to mislead, especially given the surge in false climate information finding its way onto social media platforms, as identified by multiple studies (e.g. from the BBC, Center for Countering Digital Hate and Stop Funding Heat). Additionally, a post originally created and shared with deceitful motives can unwittingly be circulated further, without harmful intention. Therefore, disinformation can be viewed as a subset of misinformation, whereby all disinformation can be classified as misinformation but not vice versa.

What types of climate mis- and disinformation narrative are there?

Climate denial

One of the oldest climate disinformation narratives is climate denial, which rejects the scientific consensus that human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, are causing global warming. Outright denial disputes the existence of climate change, while other forms might claim to question its extent or the severity of its impacts, or the role of human activity in driving it. The stance can be traced back to the late 20th century when scientific evidence began emerging that burning fossil fuels increased carbon dioxide. A concerted effort to sow doubt and confusion about climate change subsequently gained momentum, notably encouraged by the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a US-based fossil fuel denialist lobbyist group formed in 1989 after the creation of the IPCC. The GCC opposed the scientific evidence and campaigned against regulations and policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate delayism

Although climate denialism remains prevalent today, there has been a notable shift towards a more nuanced form of disinformation to thwart climate action. Proponents of climate delayism, or ‘new denial’, do not outright reject climate change is happening but instead use rhetorical tactics to diminish and discredit the evidence, to push for delaying climate action. Claims related to climate delayism now make up 70% of all climate denial claims on YouTube.

The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change has identified 12 categories of ‘discourses of climate delay’, grouped under four overarching strategies: 

  • ‘Redirect responsibility’ uses the discourse of individualism to suggest that addressing climate change is the sole responsibility of individuals rather than governments, industry, companies or society. Oil giant BP adopted the tactic of individualism in 2004 when it launched a personal carbon footprint calculator, deflecting attention away from its own contributions to carbon emissions. This stance might also use ‘whataboutism’, which counters the importance of their taking action by questioning what others are doing. For instance, the UK’s relatively small contribution today to global emissions could be used to justify taking less action than the big emitters like China.
  • ‘Push non-transformative solutions’ involves offering ‘trivial’ solutions that are ineffective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than addressing the root causes: for instance, relying solely on technologies such as carbon capture, without attempting to drive down consumption of fossil fuels.
  • Emphasise the downsides’ is often used to misrepresent the potential consequences of climate policies, solely highlighting the short-term costs. In the UK, this tactic has been used by those acting in bad faith to overstate the economic costs of transitioning to a net zero economy by falsely claiming that climate policies will lead to job losses or economic downturns.
  • ‘Surrender’ is a narrative that says it is not possible to mitigate climate change effectively given societal structures and human nature, or that it is now too late to take action, and thus we should just adapt or accept our fate.

Such narratives, whether disseminated as disinformation or misinformation, can have detrimental effects, casting doubt on climate science, sowing confusion among the public and hindering informed decision-making.  

How can misinformation be tackled?

Several social media companies such as Facebook and TikTok have worked with third-party fact-checking organisations to mitigate the spread of misinformation. However, fact-checking cannot be the only solution given the vast quantity of misinformation circulating online.

Research indicates that ‘pre-bunking’, which involves pre-emptively warning and exposing people to diluted forms of misinformation, can foster ‘mental antibodies’ against false or harmful information. Unlike debunking, which reacts to misinformation after it circulates, pre-bunking empowers the public with tools to identify misleading information before it gains traction. Governments and corporations can use this approach, developing pre-bunking campaigns to educate users about misinformation tactics.

This Explainer was written by Pallavi Sethi.

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