An unprecedented global heat wave, attributed to climate change, has sparked a surge in online misinformation, despite platforms like TikTok implementing bans on climate denial. The scorching temperatures recorded on July 3 marked the beginning of the hottest week ever documented, with intense heat waves affecting regions across the world. Climate scientist Friederike Otto from London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment described the heat as a “death sentence for people and ecosystems.”
However, the very next day, Isabel Oakeshott, a political journalist in the United Kingdom, tweeted a dismissive comment about climate change, downplaying the significance of the hot weather. Oakeshott’s tweet gained significant attention, reaching over 2.2 million people. Known for her conservative views, Oakeshott frequently criticizes climate change activists on social media. Her rhetoric exemplifies the persistence of climate denial even amidst extreme heat waves and overwhelming scientific consensus on human-induced global heating, primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Surveys indicate that a majority of people worldwide, across various age groups and spanning over 50 countries, consider climate change a “global emergency.” However, researchers have observed a recent resurgence in skepticism and denial. This skepticism is not limited to questioning the science behind climate change but extends to casting doubt on potential solutions, such as the transition to clean energy.
Comments on social media platforms like TikTok demonstrate this trend. Users not only deny the existence of climate change but also challenge proposed solutions. Some claim that climate change is merely a money-making scheme or an attempt to frighten children. Others question the reliability of renewable energy sources, implying that electric vehicles would be rendered useless without a stable power supply. These rhetorical tactics are aimed at undermining proposed solutions rather than discrediting climate science itself. They often repackage old arguments against the cost and feasibility of climate action, echoing attacks from the 1990s.
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Denial and skepticism regarding climate change have evolved in their approach. Rather than outright denial, climate misinformation now focuses on sowing doubt, deflection, and promoting inaction to delay the necessary energy transition. Critics argue that social media platforms are partially responsible for amplifying such misinformation. These platforms, designed with algorithmic biases, create echo chambers that make users susceptible to consuming, accepting, and spreading misinformation. The lack of effective content moderation and enforcement on platforms like Facebook and Google allows climate denial content to flourish.
A study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) revealed that ten major publishers, including Russian state media and right-wing US news site Breitbart, account for 69% of interactions with climate denial content on Facebook. Termed the “toxic ten,” these publishers disseminate overt climate denial to prevent consensus on the facts and solutions of climate change. Despite promises from Facebook to label posts featuring climate denial with corrective information, the platform has failed to enforce this measure. Similarly, Google has been criticized for monetizing climate denial content, contradicting its commitment not to do so.
The spread of climate misinformation has been amplified by events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. Misinformation tends to thrive during times of crisis, taking advantage of genuine concerns and eroded trust in institutions. The weaponization of “genuine trauma” was evident during the early stages of the pandemic when the term “climate lockdown” emerged on social media, suggesting that lockdown measures were a rehearsal for future “green tyranny.”
Efforts to combat climate denial online face numerous challenges. Content moderation attempts by platforms like Facebook and TikTok are seen as crude and difficult to enforce. Experts suggest that a comprehensive approach is required, including education, inoculation against misinformation, correction of false claims, and proactive action by social media platforms. Climate scientists like John Cook advocate for pre-emptive messages that address and debunk common climate disbeliefs, emphasizing the scientific consensus on climate change.
In conclusion, despite the growing recognition of climate change as a global emergency, online climate change misinformation continues to thrive. The persistence of climate denial and skepticism necessitates a multifaceted approach involving education, inoculation against misinformation, corrections, and increased responsibility from social media platforms to combat this ongoing issue.