Why is climate change denial still thriving online?
An extreme global heatwave has been blamed on climate change, yet online misinformation has evolved to counter the facts — despite platforms like TikTok banning climate denial
Record global temperatures on July 3 kicked off the hottest week ever recorded as intense heatwaves gripped the planet. Climate scientist Friederike Otto of London's Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment called the heat "a death sentence for people and ecosystems."
Yet the next day, a political journalist in the UK, Isabel Oakeshott, tweeted that "climate change headbangers panicking about a few hot days last month can calm down … It's 13 degrees and pouring." She added that she was "about to light the woodburner." Within a day, over 2.2 million people had seen the tweet.
Oakeshott, a presenter on the conservative TalkTV news channel and former editor of the Sunday Times, often comments on Twitter about "climate change nuts". On July 5, she asked, "Where's Greta when it's woolly jumpers in July?"
Amid the worst heatwaves ever recorded in the US, China, Mexico, Siberia and beyond, and near-unanimous scientific consensus that humans have induced global heating — in large part by burning fossil fuels — how does such denial continue to flourish?
The largest global survey on climate change opinion published in 2021 showed that nearly 65% of people across diverse age ranges in over 50 countries believe this crisis is a "global emergency," yet researchers have shown a recent resurgence in skepticism and denial.
Casting doubt on climate solutions
An anecdotal look at DW's own Planet A TikTok channel shows comments that peddle outright denial, but also question solutions such as the transition to clean energy.
"Climate change is not real. It's just about the money. This is sad that you scared children. You should be ashamed of yourself," wrote one user after DW posted a video about young activists suing the state of Montana for not doing enough about the climate crisis.
"So how are they going to charge their EVs when there is no electricity?" another wrote, implying that renewable energy is not a reliable power source — despite wind and solar being the cheapest and fastest-growing forms of energy.
These are old rhetorical tricks that today are targeted less at climate science than solutions, says John Cook, a climatologist and senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, and author of the Skeptical Science blog that has long debunked climate misinformation. The idea that "solutions will be harmful" or "solutions won't work" is a repackaging of old attacks on the cost of climate action from the 1990s, he added.
"The goal posts have moved," said Callum Hood, head of research at the global Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). Climate denial now employs deflection and "sows doubt" to ultimately delay the energy transition. The logic runs that "doing something is worse than doing nothing," Hood explained, referring also to the notion of "climate inactivism" coined by climate researcher and author Michael Mann.
Amplifying climate misinformation online
"There are clear vulnerabilities in the way social media platforms are designed and governed at present which allows such content to rise to the surface," said Jennie King, head of climate research & policy at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a global think tank researching extremism and disinformation.
These platforms have been constructed with a "algorithmic bias" that create "echo chambers" to make users "susceptible to consume, accept and spread misinformation," explained Kathie Treen of the University of Exeter, and co-author of a 2020 article on online misinformation and climate change.
But what is the source of this misinformation? Ten "superpolluter” publishers, among them Russian state media and right wing US news site, Breitbart, are the source of 69% of interactions with climate denial content on Facebook. according to a study by the CCDH. These "toxic ten" publish overt climate denial and amplifies it on Facebook to "prevent consensus on facts and solutions," noted the report.
This is possible because Facebook has failed to enforce a 2021 promise to label posts featuring climate denial with links to correct information, notes the report's co-author Callum Hood. Just 8% of the most popular posts on Facebook containing the toxic ten's misinformation carried labels.
And Google further amplifies this content.
"Google promised it would not monetize climate denial," Hood said. However, the big tech company paid out $3.6 million in ad revenue to the "toxic ten" over six months as they peddled climate denial.
Meanwhile, researchers have revealed that "fossil fuel sector-linked entities" paid Meta (which owns social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) around $4 million for ads in the lead-up to the COP 27 UN climate talks.
The goal was "to spread false, misleading claims on the climate crisis, net-zero targets and necessity of fossil fuels prior to and during COP27," noted a report by the Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a global research coalition. A majority of these were from Energy Citizens, a PR group of peak oil lobby, the American Petroleum Institute.
COVID-19 and Ukraine war drive climate misinformation
"Misinformation thrives in moments of crisis," said Jennie King of intersecting health, cost of living, energy and inflation crises in recent years.
What she has called "a global ecosystem for disinformation" has been exacerbated by "historic wealth inequality" and an "historic erosion of trust in institutions.”
The weaponization of "genuine trauma" was evident in the first waves of the pandemic when the term "climate lockdown” emerged across social media, promotors claiming the lockdown was a dress rehearsal for a coming wave of "green tyranny," King explained.
Typical of an online climate denial resurgence, she added, is the hashtag #ClimateScam, which inexplicably became the top result when users searched for climate on Twitter in mid-2022 — owner Elon Musk has since been implicated in climate misinformation.
Exploiting the cost of living and energy crisis linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, while de-prioritizing concerns regarding the climate crisis, has been a tried and tested strategy of pro-fossil fuel political parties, including Germany's far right AfD (Alternative for Germany).
On July 3, the co-chairwoman of the party that has risen sharply in national polls Alice Wiedel, said the German government's energy transition plans will cause widespread poverty, and that converting home heating from gas to renewable energy was equivalent to a "massacre."
Fighting online climate denial
Like Facebook, TikTok promised to ban climate denial content in April. But Jennie King says such attempts at content moderation are "crude" and "unenforceable," adding that "it is not criminal to deny climate change."
The ultimate solution would be to "demonetize" climate denial, she believes, something big tech companies have so far largely failed to do.
John Cook, meanwhile, has long advocated for "pre-emptive inoculating messages" that neutralize what he calls "climate disbeliefs" by explaining "the flawed argumentation technique used in the misinformation," and that reinforce the scientific consensus on climate change.
"There is no silver bullet when it comes to the fight against climate misinformation, and a multi-faceted approach is needed, including education, inoculation, correction, and actions by the platforms," said Kathie Treen.