What is Climate Misinformation and Climate Disinformation? All You Need To Know
This is a reproduction — with minor adaptations — of a blog I wrote for Stop Funding Heat as part of my work with them. See the original here.
These days, when reading about the climate crisis, global warming or renewable energy, you’ll hear a lot of talk about climate misinformation and climate disinformation … or “fake news”, perhaps. But what’s the difference between climate change misinformation and disinformation? And how can we spot climate misinformation?
Having studied the topic intensively throughout 2021, I feel somewhat ready to break it down for you!
Climate Skeptic and Climate Denier — What’s The Difference?
The term “climate skeptic” (or “climate sceptic” in British English) has been with us since people started doubting climate science. Over time, however, the term has fallen out of favour for “climate denial”. This was not by accident — the climate movement realised the advantage that so-called “skeptics” had by framing their attitudes in a virtuous way. To be skeptical is a good thing, right? So a counter-framing was created, referring to this attitude as “climate denial”. Rightly so — the scientific consensus for human-made climate change is overwhelming, not to mention the proof in the increasingly extreme weather events worldwide — doubting that science at this stage is nothing less than denial of the truth.
So they are the same thing — but when someone chooses to use one frame over another, this might tell you something about their position on the matter.
So What is Climate Misinformation, Then?
Actually, it’s also the same as climate scepticism or climate denial! However, when it comes to talking about the research I do, “climate misinformation” is definitely the wording that I prefer. Here’s why:
These days — thankfully — outright climate change denial and the human species’ impact on it is less convincing or effective than it used to be. It definitely still exists — you’ve probably seen some classics like “it’s the sun”, “it’s natural cycles” or “if the planet is warming, how come it’s so cold right now?”. But it is much harder to use these arguments in the year 2021 and be credible / get a platform.
So, the climate denier movement has found subtler forms of messaging to achieve their ends. Recently this involves things like:
- Casting doubt on anyone in the movement — climate scientists, activists, the media or celebrities that may talk about it. E.g. “DiCaprio wants us to cut emissions, but I don’t see him walking to work every day!”
- Downplaying the potential future cost of climate change e.g. “if we just grow our economies, we will find technological solutions” — or, only focusing on the cost of adaptation without mentioning the even bigger cost of not acting e.g. “everyone is going to need a new boiler — who is going to pay for it?” This last one is a favourite of known climate denier group in the UK, the Global Warming Policy Forum, who have recently re-branded from their obvious climate denial to a more subtle opposition to Net Zero targets. Still climate misinformation, though.
- Framing the situation as hopeless, so we may as well not act E.g. “why should our country reduce emissions if China will never do so?”
- Framing the whole umbrella of science — not just climate science — as a conspiracy to be wary of e.g. “why trust scientists when they are paid for their work? They are of course going to find results that keep them in their cushy jobs”
This is why I try where possible to use the term “climate misinformation”, even if it’s a bit unsexy. This wider term properly captures all the falsehoods that we see in the press and on online platforms that contribute to denial and mitigation delay.
What is Climate Change Disinformation and What’s The Difference Between Disinformation and Misinformation?
A final clarification on all this terminology is what separates “misinformation” and “disinformation”. Climate disinformation is a subset of climate misinformation — it is misinformation put out into the world with the intention to deceive. Believe it or not, some people make a professional living out of sharing false content, repetitive lies or misleading reports, especially on social media platforms, because that content helps them make money through clicks and attention. Or, perhaps they may stand to gain a lot personally — as a shareholder of a highly polluting company, for example — from rapid action on climate being delayed as long as possible.
In practice, though, it is nearly impossible to prove intent. Some would argue that writing climate misinformation into editorial in newspapers or placing climate misinformation adverts on Facebook or Google is a pretty strong argument for intent. But in theory, and particularly in a legal context, that is still very hard to actually prove. So, personally, I usually stick to “misinformation”, and then follow up by explaining why someone may have an incentive to spread that misinformation.
In the end, though, it’s up to you to make that call on a case by case basis — what do you think of the misinformation shown below?
Quiz! Can You Help Spot Climate Misinformation?
At Stop Funding Heat we use the latest climate communications science to categorise climate misinformation when we see it, as shown in the table below. Next time you see content about climate change, you can use this taxonomy to see if it classifies as climate misinformation.
If you want an explanation of why what you are seeing might be climate misinformation, you could check the website skepticalscience.com for details on the most commonly known climate myths and how to debunk them. This website is a treasure trove of genuine scientific studies and commentary from climate scientists — a great launchpad for your independent research.
I’m going to leave it here for now. To take part in the quiz, jump onto our blog at Stop Funding Heat!
- I wrote a report earlier this year about the extent of climate misinformation on Facebook, which was covered worldwide. I’ve yet to write about it here — it’s been a super busy time, but I do plan on putting something together soon. There is also a second report coming before COP26 — watch this space.
- Sign the petition to tell Facebook to do something about the runaway climate denial on their platform!
- As listed above, skepticalscience.com is an amazing resource as a launchpad for what kind of climate misinformation is out there.