Analysts observing climate misinformation at COP26 say it could jeopardise climate action

  • Climate change-related misinformation is emerging as a new tool to fuel polarisation, as observed at the COP26 climate conference and could impact progress on tackling climate change.
  • Polarising narratives by media and countries often provide the setting for disinformation to flourish, which in turn impacts progress and reduce public support for climate action.
  • In India, the lack of knowledge and broad discussions around the nuances of climate change are more of a problem than mis/disinformation. The subject is still not a political or economic topic, where much of the mis/disinformation is usually seen.

Climate misinformation emerged as a new concern at the recently-concluded UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow, with analysts warning that the spread of inaccurate or misleading information about climate change could delay or even derail climate action.

An image of clusters of aeroplanes, claiming they were private jets used by world leaders at the COP26 Glasgow, and another showing diesel generators being used at the conference, claiming hypocrisy, were among the deceptive viral images that circulated on social and news media during the climate summit. While these were debunked as misleading claims soon after they went viral, communication analysts identified these efforts as subtle tactics to discredit events such as COP26 and undermine the negotiating process.

Other trends that analysts observed were conflicts between ideologies or ‘culture wars’ meant to establish dominance over the negotiations, ad hominem attacks on activists meant to undermine climate action and its urgency, and greenwashing or providing false solutions. These facilitate a poor information environment where fake news can thrive and in turn, undermine the negotiations and delay progress, note experts.

False or misleading information, when unintentionally shared, is referred to as misinformation and when shared with an intention to deceive is known as disinformation. Mis/disinformation is a growing problem, recognised by the United Nations during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though the Glasgow Pact (the agreement reached at COP26) did not officially acknowledge the problem of misinformation, various groups had, by then, spurred into action, in the lead up to and during COP26, to monitor and curb climate misinformation.

Among them was the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) that developed, over a year, a climate dashboard that pulled data from over 3,000 actors across climate denial, political, media, industry, influencer and conspiracy ecosystems online, as well as over 250 traditional media outlets worldwide. During COP26, ISD, in collaboration with other climate change, technology and non-profit organisations, conducted real-time analysis of climate mis/disinformation and delivered daily bulletins on anti-climate messaging, trends and tactics.

“There have been instances in the past (at other conferences) where a coordinated disinformation effort has changed the negotiating position of key parties, and led to multiple countries refusing to ratify the agreement. And we were very concerned that something similar might happen at COP26,” Jennie King, Senior Manager, Civic Action and Education, ISD, told Mongabay-India. While at the start of the conference, ISD expected disinformation campaigns to attack specific articles of negotiation, King said it turned out to be more broad cultural framings and ideological wars.

With the general public fairly convinced that climate change is real, the efforts by those intentionally spreading inaccurate information, are now focussed on confusing the public on solutions, delaying climate action and maintaining status quo as long as possible, said King. This is often done to preserve the financial interests of traditional sectors like oil and gas, or those that have investments in fossil fuel industries and technologies, or to prevent countries making changes to their economy that they feel would weaken their geopolitical power, she explained.

Climate misinformation at COP26 aimed to undermine and delay progress on climate action, say analysts. <a href=",_glasgow_(51654476408).jpg" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Photo</a> by Francis Mckee/Wikimedia Commons.
Climate misinformation at COP26 aimed to undermine and delay progress on climate action, say analysts. Photo by Francis Mckee/Wikimedia Commons.

King and other experts agreed that this is one of the first times that climate misinformation has been monitored at such depth at a COP. Despite the problem getting no official acknowledgement in Glasgow, they have their hopes pinned on Egypt where the next climate COP is scheduled.

In an effort to get formal recognition of climate misinformation, a group led by the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), a non-profit coalition which advocates for industry ethics in advertising, has proposed a definition of climate misinformation that they anticipate will be the first step in tackling the issue. Over 250 representatives of brands, advertisers and climate community members, led by CAN, banded together at COP26, releasing an ‘open letter’ that demanded a formal universal definition of climate mis/disinformation, following which, they propose an action plan, to be included in the Negotiated Outcome of COP26, to tackle this kind of mis/disinformation.

“Climate misinformation is moving from straight up climate denial to more complex things like climate delay messaging, which (misleadingly) suggests that climate change is not as urgent as mainstream discourse suggests,” says Harriet Kingaby, Co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network and Insights Director at Media Bounty. She added that their group, which includes climate experts, felt that an official definition of climate misinformation was needed to highlight scientific consensus on climate change and fight against the false solutions and delays that hold up urgent climate action.

In more efforts to combat climate misinformation, the social media platform Twitter, in advance of COP26, announced that it would feature ‘pre-bunks’. These would be hubs of credible, authoritative information, to “surface reliable, factual context across a range of key themes, like the science backing climate change and global warming realities.” Technology company Google, also addressed climate change denial by declaring, in October, that it will “prohibit ads for, and monetization of, content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.” These announcements come at a time when social media and online platforms are facing the heat for being channels of misinformation, particularly climate misinformation. Several reports released around COP26, accuse these platforms for fuelling climate misinformation by allowing it to be funded by advertising on these platforms.

“Producing climate misinformation has become a business model for many actors in social media. The Global Disinformation Index reported an uptick in disinformation every time a climate announcement was made in the lead up to COP26,” noted the open letter by the Conscious Advertising Network.

Read more: The science of combating climate science misinformation

‘It’s not us, it’s them’

While media and country narratives at COP26 may not be labelled as mis/disinformation in the precise sense, linkages between the narratives and misleading information have been observed. The narratives, usually polarising, often provide the setting for disinformation to flourish, which in turn impacts progress.

One of the trends observed by ISD during COP26 was of an “absolutionism narrative” which propagated the notion that climate action is futile unless India and China step up. Countering this narrative, Chinese news networks and some Indian networks latched on to the “hypocrisy narrative” blaming ‘Western’ nations for climate change. “Chinese state media is adopting an oppositional tone with the West, criticising efforts to hold them accountable while pointing out, correctly, the historic responsibility of the U.S., the U.K. and other ‘developed’ nations. Outlets are also aligning with Indian media, potentially to represent a ‘united front’ and increase influence with key countries/blocs at COP (e.g. the G77),” according to daily analysis of COP26 news, based on ISD’s climate dashboard.

While the trend did not reach a critical mass for it to derail any negotiations, it did highlight the ‘culture wars’ narrative from different countries that was possibly being used to establish dominance and further polarisation.

Chinese news outlet Xinhua News, quoted Indian news channel WION’s claim that U.S. President Biden’s entourage at COP 26 ‘raised emissions concerns’ and ‘left a massive carbon footprint’. <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Screenshot</a> from Xinhua News page on Facebook.
Chinese news outlet Xinhua News, quoted Indian news channel WION’s claim that U.S. President Biden’s entourage at COP 26 ‘raised emissions concerns’ and ‘left a massive carbon footprint’. Screenshot from Xinhua News page on Facebook.

“In the context of the Global South, there are legitimate grievances when it comes to something like COP26, and the failure to meet commitments on loss and damage or climate financing. So it’s not that all of that type of content is invalid,” said King. However, she explained that the ‘culture wars’ dynamic, with a “it’s not us, it’s them” narrative, creates a polarising environment where misinformation can thrive. “It also distracts the public’s attention from some of the more important systemic conversations that are required about transitioning key industries and sectors, about the role that governments play in facilitating this legislation and about the role that individuals playing in supporting that agenda and providing public buy in,” said King.

A study by Azim Premji University, published earlier this year, also found similar opposing media narratives, about the responsibility for climate change. The study conducted over a year, from 2019-2020, analysed representations of climate change in English-language media in two countries from the ‘Global South’ – India and Nigeria – and two from the ‘Global North’ – the USA and Australia. “In Australia, the primary narrative stated that India and China were responsible for the majority of emissions, while abdicating Australia from responsibility. In contrast in the USA, the primary narrative focused on the country’s own responsibility. In India, the primary responsibility was assigned to the Global North, while in Nigeria, all countries were considered equally responsible for global emissions,” according to the study by researchers Ranjini Murali, Aishwarya Kuwar and Harini Nagendra.

The researchers analysed that focusing primarily on political narratives that attribute responsibility for climate change to specific interest groups, such as in the Indian and Australian media, can obscure the country’s own responsibility in producing climate emissions. “They can also confuse the public mind, spreading misinformation which can reduce public support for climate action,” write the authors in the study.

Murali told Mongabay-India that narratives in the Indian discourse are often built on cherry-picked information and there is limited critical analysis of the data. “It is true that per capita emissions in India are low. But when you say only that, you are also hiding some of the other truths,” she said. She added that such narratives based on incomplete information, which augment polarisation and pointing fingers, are not conducive to collective action which is urgently needed to combat climate change. Co-author Nagendra added that these narratives also mask the internal inequity within India and divert people away from questioning policy and corporates, for example, while preventing people from thinking forward.

Cherry picking, in fact, is a common characteristic of climate denialism and the broader misinformation landscape, where the focus is on evidence that supports a certain stance and contradictory evidence is ignored.

Lack of climate knowledge bigger problem in India than climate misinformation

A recent study on COVID-19 misinformation is a stark example of the extent of misinformation in India. The country was found to be the most misinformation-affected among the 138 countries surveyed. “Of all the countries, India (18.07%) produced the largest amount of social media misinformation, perhaps thanks to the country’s higher Internet penetration rate, increasing social media consumption and users’ lack of Internet literacy,” noted the study by Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman of University of Alberta, Canada, published at the end of August this year.

While misinformation, in general, is rampant in India, with fatal outcomes in some cases, climate misinformation has not reached a similar problematic level in India yet. This is possibly because the conversations about climate change itself are still limited in the country, said Neelima Vallangi a writer, photographer and filmmaker who specialises in climate change communication and simplifying the complex subject on social media.

The level of polarisation seen in some other countries or on global platforms is not as prevalent in India simply because the topic of climate change itself is still poorly discussed or understood among a considerable section of the society, she said, adding that the community of people talking about climate change, to start with, is very small. “I don’t know if we can call it lucky or not, but the reason India doesn’t have widespread climate disinformation is because people just don’t know about the subject or don’t care about it at this point.” She anticipates that once climate change becomes a greater political or economic issue in India, there is likely to be more misinformation popping up as well.

Vallangi started climate communication and explainers via social media a few years ago, after being frustrated seeing quick-fix individual lifestyle changes touted as solutions to the global climate change problem. “I think such easy solutions give people a sense of agency because otherwise climate change just feels too big and intangible where you can’t really do anything,” she says about her observations. And that’s probably why certain kinds of misinformation – which offer easy solutions – become easier for people to latch on to, even if they are not the accurate solutions. This kind of discourse (about individual lifestyle changes) was popular in India till the end of 2019, after which she noticed a shift in 2020, where more nuanced discussions about climate change began to come to the fore – she attributes this to the youth climate movement and extreme weather events becoming more visible.

The topic of climate change itself is still poorly discussed or understood among a considerable section of the society in India. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.
The topic of climate change itself is still poorly discussed or understood among a considerable section of the society in India. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

In the Azim Premji University’s study on climate narratives in India’s English media, the authors found that reporting on the existence of climate change in Indian media has reflected the scientific consensus with 100% of the articles analysed, accepting that climate change was real and anthropogenic. However, reporting scientific studies without critical analysis has its pros and cons, they say. If climate change reporting is not political, politicians are not held accountable, linkages are not made and it is not a voter issue, the subject will not get the priority it deserves, notes Murali. However, points out Nagendra, since the subject is not yet political, the problem of mis/disinformation, specifically funded mis/disinformation, has not yet caught on.  

Old agenda, new avenues

About a year ago, as ISD was studying the evolution of extremist movements, it began to notice a worrying trend – a lot of the communities that they had been monitoring and been concerned about, were beginning to pivot into language that took them into the space of environmental issues. Mis/disinformation about environment and climate change, they observed, was emerging as a new tool to fuel polarisation.

In the same way that the COVID-19 pandemic became a point of entry for misinformation, climate change, and particularly COP26, became a platform for people with agendas – political, personal or financial – to galvanise a new audience, said Jennie King of ISD.

And while the shape misinformation takes in different countries may be tailored to the national narrative, the tactics remain the same. “One of the key things in the culture war tactics is it’s always about making one group, the ‘in’ group and the other group, the ‘out’ group – and the group is often made to feel like they’re losing something, or something is under threat. These tactics are seen across markets and languages,” said Kingaby of Conscious Advertising Network, who has witnessed misinformation derail action on issues such as migration and warns that it could happen, again, around climate events.

King added, that as climate becomes a vector in the culture wars, more and more actors who usually try to monetise the outrage economy are using climate as a way to build that audience to get high traction content online. “There’s probably a growing cohort of people that actually just make their living off being pundits, and being contrarian and incendiary, and making controversial statements. And they have seen that climate is an issue, which is really bringing in an unprecedented audience now, and where there’s a lot of global attention. And so it feeds into their wider agenda.”

Read more: Fake news about animals and what’s wrong if we keep sharing it

Banner image: A 2015 image from the Global Climate March in Amsterdam. Photo by Greenpeace/Cris Toala Olivares/Wikimedia Commons.

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