The discussion surrounding climate change has always been accompanied by an ugly debate. In the discourse of climate change, statements like “the Earth’s climate has always been changing”, “scientists disagree on the cause of climate change”, “melting an ice cube in a measuring cup full of water doesn’t raise the water level, so melting icebergs cannot raise sea levels” and so on have been thrown around. Echo chambers of climate change deniers have gained a huge amount of attention and legitimacy. This is despite the fact that there is increasing scientific consensus on the dangerous and growing impacts of climate change on our ecosystem. However, the problem does not seem to be that there exist climate change deniers, but that those actually worried about climate change are often susceptible to climate change-related misinformation.
A recently conducted study revealed that almost 59% of the participants considered climate change and its effects to be worrying while 80% were actually willing to make changes in their lifestyle if it meant that it could help combat climate change. The same study revealed that 54% of participants distrusted news outlets when it came to climate-related news and 55% distrusted policymakers on the issue. What remained the most worrying takeaway from the study was that a considerable percentage of participants were unable to spot fake headlines or statements, despite their enthusiasm to fight climate change.
The discourse around climate change on Twitter, one of the largest social media platforms, shows worrying signs of polarization and increasing misinformation surrounding adverse climate events and the climate justice movement. The discussion on the platform was not focused on the Western world, but accounts that downplayed and denied climate change took up most of the space on the platform. Fringe groups have become adept at the art of blending conspiracy theories to seem real while gaining credibility under the garb of being “anti-establishment”. The source of this false information has historically been large corporations that have much to lose by the implementation of climate-friendly policies. However, recent political developments across the world, fuelled by the growth of social media have given rise to “Internet sub-cultures” and “alt-right groups” that have been responsible for the blatant spreading of unscientific information on climate change. Restricting our discussion to only Twitter, for convenience, a study conducted revealed that of the top 500 most retweeted posts about climate change, almost 55.8% were denying climate change while 31.4% believed that it was anthropogenic. While there seems to be a lack of research in terms of the frequency of fake news on other platforms or even in print and broadcasting, the conclusion is simple: false information forms a large part of the public discourse around climate change.
An important question here remains as to whether false information is actually effective in influencing policy as well as popular opinion. Well, the Covid-19 Pandemic seems to have answered both these questions in the affirmative. The lack of consensus on the efficacy of vaccines, the importance of masks and social distancing, and the actual dangers of contracting Covid-19 indicate the effect of false information. A big reason why misinformation sells is not that people are unable to spot fake news, but because they are being made to believe that they are logically arriving at this conclusion, away from external pressure. Which is why the opinions of experts who have often dedicated their entire lives to this cause are seen as being “imposing” or “fear-mongering”. The idea that people know what is best for themselves stems from the idea that those at the forefront of climate science are often condescending. Fringe groups promote the narrative that listening to the experts is equivalent to having a so-called “herd mentality”.
Although it is easy to brush off these things as being stupid or delusional, they have real-life consequences. Having a large section of the population believe lies floating around on the internet plays a critical role in delaying climate justice. In fact, the Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has even gone on to highlight the adversity that misinformation about climate change brings. The idea that both sides of the conversation need to be represented often does more harm than good. It provides a legitimate platform for ideas and opinions that often do not have legitimate backing. Although movements parallel to the climate justice movement often have stronger roots in the developed world, the developing world is not immune to misinformation and quackery. Efforts at delegitimising the climate justice movement are often effective, even though they are based on a false premise. This inadvertently removes climate change from the table while discussing policy matters. Freedom of speech carries the consequences of reckless and irresponsible use. So how can we, as an international community and global citizens, become a more responsible news-consuming society? This would require mitigation efforts at the macro and micro levels.
Individually, there is a lot one can do to prevent spiraling into fake news. First, I believe it is important to identify certain platforms and people who can be trusted with their facts. These could be big media houses, journalists, scientists, etc. Second, checking and accounting for biases could remove subjectivity from the discourse. It would also prevent us from indulging in the necessity of “representing both sides of the controversy”. Lastly, countering fake news would require us to develop a scientific temperament, enabling us to be informed and responsible individuals.
At the macro level, mitigation would require a lot more will and organization. Media houses and social media companies would have to actively engage in countering fake news on their platforms. The advent of technology gives us some hope that in the future it would be much easier to flag false information. An evolved political leadership committed to gaining the trust of the public on issues pertaining to climate change would also be crucial. A responsible news-consuming public is pertinent in the fight for climate justice and while we might believe that we are immune to misinformation, it is crucial to be cautious in our news consumption. Legitimacy given to skepticism of proven and established facts breeds misinformation, proving fatal to any civil society. Understanding our roles as members of such a society will be crucial in our fight for climate justice.
Authored by Kanika Birje
Edited by Diya Rakesh