The slow pace of global climate talks were once again on display at COP27 last week and can be partially explained by a renewed blitz of climate disinformation, according to watchdog groups that analyze media ecosystems.
Last week, the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition released a new analysis of efforts to undermine climate action and found that false and misleading claims made by right-wing media outlets about global warming and clean energy continue to affect public perception about the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry, the authors said, is riding that wave of disinformation into the climate talks to promote false solutions.
“Misinformation has sowed uncertainty and impeded the recognition of risk…and the rise of climate misinformation is undermining climate action here at COP27,” Jacob Dubbins, a coauthor of the new report, said at a COP27 press conference.
The report said that Fox News remains a significant source of false and misleading information about the climate crisis, fueling unfounded public skepticism in a way that could even inspire violence against policymakers who advocate for strong climate action.
The report included a scientific survey on the media consumption habits of thousands of people in six different countries: Brazil, Australia, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It found that Americans, especially those who regularly watch Fox News, are the most likely among the study’s participants in all six countries to hold false beliefs about global warming.
People who watch Fox News at least five times a week, the survey found, were far more likely than the general public to believe a host of false climate narratives, including that renewable energy sources are unreliable and more expensive at generating electricity than fossil fuels and that the world’s science community is still debating the cause of global warming.
These “stark” findings, the report’s authors said, show that climate misinformation remains a rampant problem around the world and continues to be disproportionately spread by right-wing media. If more isn’t done to address the issue, they said, those false narratives will continue to hinder constructive debate, including at the United Nations’ COP27 global climate summit.
Americans, especially those who regularly watch Fox News, are the most likely among the study’s participants in all six countries to hold false beliefs about global warming.
“The misconception around climate change is too widespread and significant to ignore,” Erika Seiber, a press officer with environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth and a spokesperson for the coalition that produced the report, said in an interview. “One quarter of Americans think that climate change is a hoax, a consistent and false talking point from Trump and the GOP. We can’t do much to address the climate crisis with this level of discrepancy over reality.”
Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, an organization trying to ensure ethics in advertising and one of the groups behind the report, said at the COP27 press conference that the problem extends far beyond the U.S.
“Climate disinformation is a global problem, and it is a huge problem for those of us who are supportive of, and working toward the kind of climate action that we need extremely rapidly now,” she said. “We have created an open letter with a series of asks that we think can play a huge role in solving this problem.”
The letter was submitted to the COP27 presidency, country delegations, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the CEOs of major tech platforms.
“We are on track for 2.8 degrees Celsius of global warming,” the letter said. “While emissions continue to rise, humanity faces climate catastrophe, yet vested economic and political interests continue to organize and finance climate misinformation and disinformation to hold back action.”
Addressing the issue in the final COP27 documents with language that acknowledges the threat of climate mis- and disinformation could create a positive cascade effect that would “incentivize tech platforms to embed this within their policy definitions,” Kingaby said.
Among the report’s most troubling findings was that a significant portion of the population across all six countries still believes that climate change isn’t being caused by humans, including nearly half of the 2,396 American participants. Of those survey respondents, false climate beliefs were even more prevalent among those who regularly watch Fox News.
Specifically, 59 percent of Fox News consumers believe that a significant number of scientists disagree on the cause of climate change, compared to just 35 percent of the broader U.S. sample. Additionally, 56 percent of Fox viewers think renewable energy is more expensive than energy from fossil fuels, compared to 34 percent of the bigger sample. And 60 percent of respondents who watch Fox say that renewables are unreliable energy sources, compared to 32 percent of the American sample as a whole.
Regular Fox viewers were also far more likely to believe that natural gas is needed to reduce climate-warming emissions, with 57 percent of those respondents agreeing with that premise, compared to 38 percent of overall U.S. respondents.
Those beliefs contradict what the vast majority of climate scientists have said in recent reports, including the latest major assessment from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A staggering 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed studies on global warming conclude that climate change is real and that humans are causing it by burning fossil fuels and clearing land for agriculture.
Additionally, improvements in long-life batteries have made renewable energy sources just as reliable as fossil fuel power plants, if not more reliable in some instances, many experts say. And solar is now the cheapest form of energy in history, according to the nonpartisan International Energy Agency, which has also said that all new fossil fuel development, including natural gas production, must immediately halt to achieve global climate goals.
We can’t do much to address the climate crisis with this level of discrepancy over reality,” said Seiber.
The findings of last week’s survey add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that the prevalence of climate falsehoods perpetuated by Fox News and other conservative media outlets have serious impacts on public opinion when it comes to climate change.
At the COP press conference, Jennie King, head of civic action and education with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said that a recent surge in climate disinformation is likely linked with dramatic world events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
King, who was at COP27 to monitor climate information, said those events resulted in “major shifts in the information landscape … when it comes to trying to support climate action, by shifting the dynamics across social media platforms, both mainstream and fringe, and also mainstream media.”
The pandemic and the Russian aggression “turbocharged the disinformation ecosystem” and acted as a crucible for a number of conspiracies, movements and grievance politics movements to converge under one umbrella,” she said. “During that time, we saw the growth of a number of new conspiracies surrounding climate change, linking grievances or outrage around the public health response to the pandemic with a push back on environmentalism.”
That included conspiracies like a “climate lockdown, which claimed that the pandemic was manufactured as a pretext to implement a more insidious green agenda going forward,” she said. The Russian invasion also fueled a number of actors who “were already very vested in maintaining the status quo; maintaining reliance on fossil fuels, and preventing decarbonisation, or net zero transitions.”
“On that basis,” she said, “we have seen argumentation which suggests the idea that Putin was emboldened to invade Ukraine because of the West’s fixation on net zero agendas, and that it is our obsession with the Paris Agreement that is allowing conflicts like this to occur.”
The disruptions to supply chains and increased fuel and food prices also fed the fires of disinformation, she added.
“We were seeing delay-ism, or subtler forms of disinformation, but now we are seeing that out and out denial is making an absolute comeback,” King said.
“There has been an incredible effort by disinformation actors to frame that situation as the fault of green levies and other net zero policies,” she said. Those actors have leveraged those concerns to try and make people believe that price increases and other economic impacts are caused by policies aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, she added.
The next step in the climate disinformation campaigns is to try and get people to believe “that the climate agenda is dead, that people can’t afford it and that it’s going to bankrupt hardworking people,” she said. The subsequent message from the disinformation campaigns is to tell people that it is essential right now to maintain reliance on polluting technologies like oil and gas, she added.
“I think for our coalition, this has been extremely concerning, and in some way surprising, because up until this year, denialism still existed, but it had been pushed more to the periphery,” she said. “We were seeing delay-ism, or subtler forms of disinformation, but now we are seeing that out and out denial is making an absolute comeback.”
Using the uncertainty of the times, the voices of denial have become emboldened to frame their agenda in a broader anti-elitist context, particularly targeting institutions like the World Economic Forum, which aren’t particularly liked or trusted to begin with.
“The final thing I wanted to mention is a renewed energy and investment in fossil fuel greenwashing, being pushed very heavily by the fossil fuel lobby, which we’ve seen here at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh,” she said, noting the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists and other representatives at the climate conference. “In particular, the African gas lobby has been very vocal in making the suggestion that net zero transitions are a form of neocolonialism or Western imperialism, and that maintaining the use of fossil fuels is essential to human rights.”
There are the recent reports out by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, as well as from the University of Exeter, showing that fossil fuel companies are spending millions of dollars to run as many as 850 ads a day and getting tens of millions of views “that aim to confuse the public about what are viable climate solutions going forward,” she said.
Above all, they are trying to create the impression “that companies whose investment portfolios are almost entirely grounded in oil and gas, are somehow climate champions, and are going to lead the charge on a netzero transition.”
Kristoffer Tigue is a New York City-based reporter for Inside Climate News.
Bob Berwyn an Austria-based reporter for Inside Climate News.