Editorial: Misinformation is blocking climate action, and the U.N. is finally calling it out
A landmark U.N. climate report on the escalating effects of global warming broke new ground by finally highlighting the role of misinformation in obstructing climate action. It was the first time one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s exhaustive assessments has called out the ways in which fossil fuel companies, climate deniers and conspiracy theorists have sown doubt and confusion about climate change and made it harder for policymakers to act.
The expert panel’s report released last week mostly focused on the increasing risk of catastrophe to nature and humanity from climate change. But it also laid out clear evidence of how misinformation about climate change and the “deliberate undermining of science” financed and organized by “vested economic and political interests,” along with deep partisanship and polarization, are delaying action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to their impacts.
The assessment describes an atmosphere in which public perception about climate change is continually undermined by fossil fuel interests’ peddling of false, misleading and contrarian information and its circulation through social media echo chambers; where there’s an entrenched partisan divide on climate science and solutions; and people reject factual information if it conflicts with their political ideology.
Sound familiar? It should, because the climate misinformation landscape is worse in the United States than practically any other country.
Of course, more people are worried about climate change given the escalating wildfires, heat waves and other climate disasters. But you wouldn’t know it from our government’s flagging response.
While the section on misinformation covers only a few of the more than 3,600 pages in the report approved by 195 countries, it’s notable that it’s in a chapter about North America and calls out the U.S. as a hotbed for conspiracy theories, partisanship and polarization. A 2018 study of 25 countries that was cited in the IPCC report found that the U.S. had a stronger link between climate skepticism and conspiratorial and conservative ideology than in any other nation tested. These forces aren’t just a threat to democracy, they are major roadblocks to climate action and seem to have sharpened with the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Misinformation was included in the North America chapter for the first time this year “because there has been a lot of research conducted on the topic since the last major IPCC report was published in 2014,” said Sherilee Harper, one of the lead authors and an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. “Evidence assessed in the report shows how strong party affiliation and partisan opinion polarization can contribute to delayed climate action, most notably in the U.S.A., but also in Canada.”
The IPCC’s language is measured but leaves no doubt that the fossil fuel industry and politicians who advance its agenda are responsible. It is shameful that fossil fuel interests have been so successful in misleading Americans about the greatest threat to our existence. The industry has engaged in a decades-long campaign to question climate science and delay action, enlisting conservative think tanks and public relations firms to help sow doubt about global warming and the actions needed to fight it.
These dynamics help explain why U.S. politicians have failed time after time to enact significant federal climate legislation, including President Biden’s stalled but desperately needed “Build Back Better” bill that includes $555 billion to spur growth in renewable energy and clean transportation. And they show that combating disinformation is a necessity if we are to break through lawmakers’ refusal to act, which is increasingly out of step with Americans’ surging levels of alarm and concern about the overheating of the planet.
Lawmakers should get behind legislation to make California the first state in the nation to rank heat waves, a step that could save countless lives.
“We’ve seen misinformation poisoning the information landscape for over three decades, and over that time the public has been getting more and more polarized,” said John Cook, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University in Australia. “The U.S. is the strongest source of misinformation and recipient of misinformation. It’s also the most polarized on climate.”
Cook and his colleagues studied misinformation on conservative think-tank websites and contrarian blogs over the last 20 years and charted the evolution of the climate opposition from outright denial of the reality of human-caused climate change and toward attacking solutions such as renewable energy or seeking to discredit scientists.
Cook said his research has found the most effective way to counter climate obstruction misinformation is to educate people about how to identify and understand different tactics, such as the use of fake experts, cherry-picked facts, logical fallacies and conspiracy theories. For example, seeing words such as “natural” or “renewable” in fossil fuel advertising raises red flags that you’re being misled through greenwashing.
“It’s like teaching people the magician’s sleight-of-hand trick,” Cook said.
There have been important efforts recently to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for disinformation. In a hearing that was modeled on tobacco industry testimony from a generation ago, House Democrats hauled in oil executives last fall to answer to allegations that their companies have concealed their knowledge of the risks of global warming to obstruct climate action (they, unsurprisingly, denied them).
Perhaps we are getting closer to a turning point, where public realization that we’ve been misinformed by polluting industries begins to overcome decades of planet-endangering deceit and delay. Having the world’s scientists finally begin to call out the problem certainly can’t hurt.
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