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Climate disinformation at COP27

A plenary session at the COP27 meeting in Sharm el Sheikh on Nov.06. PHOTO/UNFCCC

‘Falsehoods affecting perception of climate crisis’

NEWS ANALYSIS  | RONALD MUSOKE | When Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General warned last month that the world cannot beat climate change without tackling climate misinformation and disinformation, he could not have predicted any better what was to happen at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

According to the intelligence unit of Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), there has been no shortage of disinformation activities at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) which ran from Nov.06-18.

“Opposition actors are seeking to muddy the water on informed discussions around climate action, and reduce the public mandate for climate action,” said the non-profit on Nov.15.

CAAD, which is a global coalition of 50 organizations that monitors and tackles falsehoods and misleading information on climate change across Europe, Australia, Africa, and North America, mentioned associations and front groups falsifying broad support for highly unpopular fossil fuel policies and bad faith actors attempting to make “climate reparations” a toxic wedge issue.

CAAD alongside another non-profit organisation, the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) whose focus is on breaking the economic link between advertising and harmful content were presenting findings of a survey they commissioned in six countries to gauge the level of public perception of the climate crisis. The study was conducted in Australia, Brazil, Germany, India, the UK and the US and the data was collected by YouGov.

The survey findings were published along with an open letter to the COP27 presidency, country delegations and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) noting that “Global action is required now to tackle climate misinformation and disinformation.”

The letter tasked delegates at COP27 to develop a clear plan for action against climate misinformation and disinformation based on the universal definition of climate disinformation.

The survey defined climate disinformation and misinformation as “Deceptive or misleading content that undermines the existence or impacts of climate change and the unequivocal human influence on climate change.”

In other instances, it could be information that misrepresents scientific data, including by omission or cherry-picking, in order to erode trust in climate science, climate-focused institutions, experts, and solutions.

While the world is running out of time to stave off the most devastating consequence of climate change, these deliberate anti-climate communication attacks in the public space weaken public demand for the mitigation and adaptation measures that would protect the public and the planet from the climate crisis, the non-profit organisations warned.

Survey findings

According to the survey, misinformation across the six countries includes beliefs contrary to scientific consensus about climate change, fossil fuel and energy consumption, renewables, energy prices and crisis, net zero transition, climate action and climate policy (like electric vehicles and heat pumps).

A large number of respondents in the six countries surveyed believe that fossil gas is a climate-friendly energy source, contrary to what climate science shows about its damaging impacts on the climate.

Overall, between 6-23% of the people of the countries covered within this report do not believe in climate change or are uncertain about whether climate change is happening. A further 22-38% believes that humans are only partly responsible for the change in climate. People in the United States are more likely to hold this belief.

Up to 34% of Australians, 40% of Brazilians, 25% of Germans, 57% of Indians, and 39% of US citizens believe that gas is a climate-friendly energy source while 14% of the population in the UK believes in this example of disinformation.

When the data is combined, between 55% and 85% of the populations surveyed believe at least one of the climate change misinformation statements included in the questionnaire— with the highest share in India and the lowest in the UK.

‘Climate has always changed’

The survey further shows that 20% or more of the people surveyed believe that “climate has always changed; global warming is a natural phenomenon and is not a direct result of human activity.”

People in the U.S and Australia are most likely to hold this belief with 33% in each country believing this statement. One quarter or more people surveyed in each of the six countries believe that their country cannot afford to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050.”

In Australia, 44% believe that climate change is not caused mainly by human activity. 37% of the people there believe “A significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change, 33% believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon and 31% say that “Climate change mitigation efforts punish citizens through, for example, lifestyle changes, rising prices, livelihoods etc).

In Brazil, 44% believe that climate change is not caused mainly by human activity. 29% of the population also believes that “A significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change,” and 24% believe that “the temperature record is unreliable or rigged.”

In Germany, only 49% believe that climate change is mainly caused by human activity. 36% of the population believes that “A significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change, 28% say that “Climate models are not accurate” and again 28% believe that “Climate change mitigation efforts punish citizens, for example through lifestyle changes, rising prices, livelihoods etc).

In India, nearly half the population (49%) believes that India is leading the world on climate action, having signed international climate agreements and put plans into place to address climate change. A similar share reported that India should focus its efforts on technologies such as carbon capture and storage rather than trying to cut carbon emissions.

In the UK, the belief that a significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change was the most commonly held misinformation belief (29%). However, 54% believe that climate change is mainly caused by human activity.

In the United States, the belief that a significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change was the most commonly believed narrative (35%) while 46% of the respondents believe that climate change is not caused mainly by human activity. Another 23% of the population believes that climate change is a hoax made up by elite organizations, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Renewable energy

In Australia, the belief that “renewable energy is more expensive than energy from fossil fuels” is the most commonly held misinformation belief, with 37% of the public reporting that Australia cannot do without the fossil fuels. On the other hand, 47% of Brazilians also believe that “natural gas is essential and important fuel needed to be utilized for the low-carbon energy transition.”

In Germany, the belief that actions to help the climate will generate high costs which will be paid by the middle class (45%), and natural gas being an essential and important fuel needed to be utilized for the low-carbon energy transition (44%) were the most common misinformation narratives the public believes around fossil fuels.

One third of the German respondents (33%) also believe that fossil fuels are the only way to stabilize and back up variable wind and solar power. A third of the German population also believes that because solar and wind energy can be generated only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, there is no way of making them the basis of a grid that has to provide electricity 24/7, year-round.

In India, the belief that because solar and wind energy can be generated only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, there is no way of making them the basis of a grid that has to provide electricity 24/7, year-round was believed by roughly half the public (47%). In the UK that number was 27% and 32% in the U.S.

Government ministers attending a roundtable discussion delivered a collective call to urgently ramp ambition on climate change across the board. PHOTO/UNFCCC

Net-zero transition

In Australia, 29% of the people believe that “Australia cannot afford to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050” and 28% of them believe the statement that: “the main reason our bills are increasing is due to climate and net zero policies.In Brazil it was 25% and 21% of society believing that, respectively and in Germany 26% and 26%. In India it was 33% and 33% of society believing that, in the 25% of society.

In the United States, the two most common net zero misinformation narratives were that the U.S cannot afford to reach the target of zero emissions by 2050 and that the world does not need to rapidly decarbonize and achieve net zero by 2050 to ensure the prosperity and welfare of humans across the world. Approximately one in four Americans (26%) believe each of these narratives.

Misinformation about electric vehicles

In Australia and Brazil, the belief that the batteries from electric vehicles cannot be re-used or recycled, and will pollute the environment was most common, with 37% and 26% of the public in the respective countries reporting a belief in this narrative.

In Germany, 43% of the population believes that it would not be possible to produce enough lithium to supply the world with electric vehicles and 45% think that the electricity grid would never be able to handle the increase in electric vehicles.

In India, roughly, equal shares believe that it would not be possible to produce enough lithium to supply the world with electric vehicles (43%) as they also believed that the battery from electric vehicles cannot be re-used or recycled (41%).

In the UK, 34% of the population believes that it would not be possible to produce enough lithium to supply the world with electric vehicles, and 35% think that the electricity grid would never be able to handle the increase in electric vehicles.

In the U.S, 31% of the population believes that it would not be possible to produce enough lithium to supply the world with electric vehicles, and 36% think that the electricity grid would never be able to handle the increase in electric vehicles.

Climate misinformation and news consumption

According to the survey, news consumption is not an indicator of whether people are better informed on climate science. This was observed across the regions. Participants who consumed news five days or more per week were more likely to believe in 41% or more of the misinformation statements compared to those who do not consume news.

This, the survey found, suggests that news outlets reporting regularly include misinformation narratives, which are negatively influencing their readers’ opinions.

Respondents were asked about how frequently they consumed a number of different outlets as a part of the survey. Their responses were also crossed with their beliefs about climate misinformation narratives.

In the UK, belief in top misinformation narratives was consistently highest among regular readers of the Daily Mail while in the U.S; misinformation belief was consistently highest among regular Fox News consumers.

In Brazil, users of Jovem Pan, GloboNews, CNN, BandNews, Folha de Sao Paulo and Twitter were more likely to believe a variety of the top pieces of misinformation than the general public.

In Germany, misinformation belief was more heavily concentrated among regular Die Welt and Focus consumers than among other outlets.

In India, regular consumers of the Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express, India Today and Wion reported relatively high levels of belief in a number of top misinformation narratives compared with the general public.

Going forward, the anti-mis/disinformation non-profit organizations particularly want the CEOs of Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, and Reddit to among other things accept the universal definition of climate mis/disinformation, produce and publicise a transparent company plan to eliminate the spread of climate misinformation and disinformation on their platforms as well as institute community standards that do not permit monetization of deceptive statements on climate science and policy.

“Advertise your zero-tolerance approach directly to users, do not publish adverts if they contain climate misinformation or disinformation based on the definition (and) share your internal research on how climate misinformation and disinformation spread on your platform with researchers and journalists so we can work together to tackle this global, multi-faceted issue,” they said in a statement.

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