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A protester carries a placard that says "Apathy is destruction" as students march in Los Angeles on May 24, 2019. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'Deny, Deceive, Delay': How 'Evolving' Disinformation Tactics Stymie Climate Action

Pushing for policies requiring Big Tech "to be transparent and accountable about the harms their products create," one campaigner said that "we should not continue this endless game of climate denial whack-a-mole."

Jessica Corbett

Leading up to the next global climate summit in November, a report released Thursday uses climate mis- and disinformation related to last year's conference to spotlight emerging strategies that impede action and to offer Big Tech and government clear solutions.

"Far from helping to mitigate this issue, tech platform systems appear to be amplifying or exacerbating the spread of such content."

The report—entitled Deny, Deceive, Delay: Documenting and Responding to Climate Disinformation at COP26 and Beyond—was published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the coalition Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD).

ISD and CAAD point out that institutions worldwide recognize misinformation as a barrier to action, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did in a February report underscoring the need for governments—particularly those of rich nations—to improve their responses to the planetary emergency.

"Rhetoric and misinformation on climate change and the deliberate undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, disregarded risk and urgency, and dissent," the IPCC report states. "Additionally, strong party affiliation and partisan opinion polarization contribute to delayed mitigation and adaptation action, most notably in the U.S.… but with similar patterns in Canada."

As the new publication's executive summary explains, "Drawing on research compiled over the past 18 months, and especially in the margins and aftermath of COP 26, we have clear evidence of the challenge at hand: The failure to stem mis- and disinformation online has allowed junk science, climate delayism, and attacks on climate figures to become mainstreamed."

"Our analysis has shown how a small but dedicated community of actors boast disproportionate reach and engagement across social media, reaching millions of people worldwide and bolstered by legacy print, broadcast, and radio outlets," the report continues. Such actors include right-wing figures Dinesh D'Souza and Sebastian Gorka, self-described "Greenpeace dropout" Patrick Moore, University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, the Canadian group Friends of Science, and the media company PragerU.

"Far from helping to mitigate this issue, tech platform systems appear to be amplifying or exacerbating the spread of such content," the document adds. "Moreover, the taxonomy of harm relating to climate mis- and disinformation has been poorly defined to date, providing an inadequate basis for response."

Jennie King, head of climate disinformation at ISD, said in a statement Thursday that "our analysis has shown that climate disinformation has become more complex, evolving from outright denial into identifiable 'discourses of delay' to exploit the gap between buy-in and action."

The report warns that "even with broad consensus on the issue of climate, there is a long road ahead to achieving meaningful policy change in line with IPCC warnings and the goals of the Paris agreement," and those opposed to bold moves scientists say are necessary—such as phasing out fossil fuels—focus on that gap to "maintain the status quo."

As the document details:

Arguments framed as 'pro-green' can still advocate for inertia or inactivism, often using the veneer of fiscal pragmatism, free market logic, and concerns about individual liberty. In this way, environmentalism has followed policy issues like migration and public health as a new front in the culture wars, becoming ever-more enmeshed in broader identity and grievance politics. Whether through conspiracies like 'climate lockdown,' or by conflating climate with divisive issues like critical race theory, LGBTQ+ rights, and abortion access, the goal of much climate change mis- and/or disinformation is now is to distract and delay. Yet, with the window to act deemed "brief and rapidly closing," such an approach may prove fatal.

Social media monitoring by CAAD during and after COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland revealed four key discourses of delay—hypocrisy and elitism, absolutionism, unreliability of renewables, and ineffective electric vehicles—though the report acknowledges that "such narratives are not always clear-cut and in some cases overlap."

King said that "governments and social media platforms must learn the new strategies at play and understand that disinformation in the climate realm has increasing crossover with other harms, including electoral integrity, public health, hate speech, and conspiracy theories."

"We've proposed seven concrete measures they can take to thwart the prominence and impact of this content, in order to build public mandates based on credible science and good-faith debate," she noted.

Those seven "policy asks" are:

  • Implement a unified definition of climate mis- and disinformation within key institutions (e.g. IPCC, UNFCCC) and reflect these criteria in tech company community standards or terms of service;
  • Enforce platform policies against "repeat offender" accounts;
  • Limit media exemption loopholes within legislation;
  • Improve transparency on climate disinformation trends and the role played by algorithmic amplification;
  • Strengthen platform labeling on "missing context" and the re-posting of old or recycled content;
  • Restrict paid advertising and sponsored content from fossil fuel companies, known front groups, and/or actors repeatedly found to spread disinformation around climate; and
  • Enable API image-based searches to support research on viral disinformation.

"While climate misinformation continues to evolve and undermine the work of well-meaning companies, NGOs, and government bodies, those same institutions are often fighting against it like we are still in the 1990s," declared Stop Funding Heat campaign manager Sean Buchan. "We need to catch up fast. We hope this report will help kickstart a step change in how we come together and fight this incredibly dangerous problem."

Michael Khoo, co-chair of the Climate Disinformation Coalition at Friends of the Earth U.S., emphasized that "governments must require social media companies to be transparent and accountable about the harms their products create, as they do with every other industry from airlines to cars to food processing."

As Khoo put it: "We should not continue this endless game of climate denial whack-a-mole."

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