Climate Misinformation Hampers Progress

Misinformation in climate is a longstanding strategy, though it is uniquely exacerbated by social media that rewards the sensational over the factual.

Facebook announced last week that it has created a new Climate Science Information Center, essentially a separate climate news feed exclusively from verified sources. It is modeled after their recent campaign to separate true from false news with COVID-19 information.

The announcement follows some heat from the NYTimes criticizing Facebook’s recategorization of flagged false content as “opinion.” In particular, the climate denial nonprofit, CO2 Coalition, whose stated mission is to promulgate “the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and economy” is an outlier ‘opinion’ holder, and happens to be funded in large part by the Mercer Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute.

The creation of the Climate Science Information Center follows a similar trend (highlighted last week by a credible whistleblower) of Facebook’s use of ‘stunts’ to deflect taking meaningful action on misinformation. As much as creating real news to dilute the fake is laudable, it seems more like applying a discount on misinformation rather than grappling with the intricacies of dispelling it entirely.

Misinformation in climate is a longstanding strategy, though it is uniquely exacerbated by social media that rewards the sensational over the factual.

ExxonMobil infamously investigated climate change as early as the 1970s and after Dr. James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony on the dangers of global warming, began a disinformation campaign. Today, the climate countermovement subverts industries well beyond oil & gas majors to include utilities and railroads.

The network of opposition uses three primary mechanisms to spread climate disinformation:

1. Charitable giving: donations to prominent institutions of higher education, think tanks, and political campaigns tilt the hand of these information vectors towards climate confusion.
2. Consumer marketing: clever campaigns like the concept of a “carbon footprint” export the burdens of climate action on consumers, not on the scope 1 and 2 producers themselves.
3. Bots: social platforms remain perhaps the richest ground to sow misinformation – a recent study from Brown University found that a staggering 25% percent of tweets about climate change are generated by bots propagating climate denial.

Arguments of methods and motivations aside, such misinformation campaigns actively slow progress on climate mitigation and adaptation and create barriers to fledging ventures’ narratives otherwise. Outside of bubbles (like this newsletter), climate denialism is alive and well – with wide-ranging implications for the election. Meanwhile, the Democratic party still refuses to include an end to fossil fuel subsidies in its platform given the potential industry maelstrom.

Though often invisible, this persistent torrent of climate misinformation significantly slows climate tech’s progress by pitting it as a politically moral prerogative, rather than a solution to glaring and real problems. The battle of perception is critical for climate tech growth, particularly in acknowledging that the field’s mandate starts at a disadvantage to the market whenever it has to explain what the market is.

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