Climate disinformation and misinformation refers to deceptive or misleading content that:
- Undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, the unequivocal human influence on climate change, and the need for corresponding urgent action according to the IPCC scientific consensus and in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement;
- Misrepresents scientific data, including by omission or cherry-picking, in order to erode trust in climate science, climate-focused institutions, experts, and solutions; or
- Falsely publicises efforts as supportive of climate goals that in fact contribute to climate warming or contravene the scientific consensus on mitigation or adaptation.
Climate change misinformation and disinformation are major threats to climate action. They create a distorted perception of climate science and solutions; meanwhile they weaken the public mandate for effective domestic and international policies aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Outright climate denial no longer has as much traction in mainstream media, but continues to flourish across social media, with algorithms often amplifying the worst and most extreme content. Discourses of climate delay also continue to pervade the mainstream media and social media platforms around topics such as net zero policy, and pose a real threat to implementing targets or agendas in line with the urgency of the threat. In parallel, digital advertising and monetisation through social media and the open web diversify opportunities to spread climate mis/disinformation – including ‘greenwashing’ – and, in many cases, create active financial incentives to do so.
More than 20 leading climate and anti-disinformation organisations established a global coalition in the summer of 2021, to safeguard public debate and mitigate information attacks against the COP26 summit. These efforts led to the creation of a universal definition of climate mis/disinformation; initiated a long-term process for decision makers to acknowledge the threat; spotlighted climate disinformation threats; provided insight for media outlets globally; and helped decision makers to understand the scale of the problem. It also inspired Google to roll out a global climate misinformation policy across all its monetised products and services including YouTube and to ban disinformation adverts that deny the existence of climate change or humanity’s impact on the climate. While good progress, these efforts were only the initial steps of what is needed to solve the problems detailed above.
We need more robust, coordinated and proactive strategies to deal with the scale of the threat to platforms. (For the purposes of this document, ‘platforms’ henceforth refers to both tech platforms and ad networks serving the open web.)
To prevent climate mis/disinformation and its impacts on climate action, civil society needs to pressure platforms, governments and regulators to rein in the problem of climate denial and wider discourses of delay. As a first step, we need acknowledgement and transparency about mis/disinformation of all forms from the platforms, and to support international and national government legislation that would enforce this.
The coming two years will provide opportunities to turbo-charge climate disinformation in the mainstream, `including: the COP27 & COP28 summits; elections in key geographies such as Australia, Brazil, France, India, Nigeria, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States; the release of major IPCC reports; updated announcements on nationally determined contributions (NDCs); and other key milestones in climate financing and governance. Fortunately, the stars are also aligning for opportunities to create strong policies from both governments and tech platforms, if we continue to build up what we achieved together in 2021 and organise collective interventions for decision-makers and the tech platforms to ramp up their action against climate mis/disinformation.