Advertising Guide: What is Climate Misinformation?
Here is everything you need to know about how misinformation impacts organisations, brands and audiences. Included:
- What is going on? What is climate misinformation, and how do we know how to spot it?
- Delay messaging: A new and sophisticated form of denial.
- Conspiracy: An ugly way of eroding trust and spreading confusion.
- Greenwashing: Corporate disinformation.
This threat alert was originally published in September 2021 and was last updated in June 2022.
What's going on?
What narratives are at play, who is pushing them and how long it has been going on for
Climate change misinformation and disinformation are major threats to climate action. They distorted the perception of climate science and solutions and create confusion among ordinary people.
Disinformation is created or shared with the intent to deceive, whereas misinformation can be created or shared by those who don't realise it is untrue. Disinformation can come from many sources, for example:
- By companies, to soften the image of unethical industries
- By the alt-right, to derail trust in governments, or multilateral institutions.
- By media outlets, who have an anti-climate agenda
- By organised groups, to harm organisations or individuals
- By states, to propagate information warfare
- By chancers who just want to make money through ad revenue
We use the definition of climate mis and disinformation put together by the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition, which has been put together by scientists, climate groups, and disinformation experts:
1. Undermines the existence or impacts of climate change, the unequivocal human influence on climate change, or the need for corresponding urgent action according to the IPCC scientific consensus and in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement
2. Misrepresents scientific data, including by omission or cherry-picking, in order to erode trust in climate science, climate-focused institutions, experts, and solutions
3. Falsely publicises efforts as supportive of climate goals that in fact contribute to climate warming or contravene the scientific consensus on mitigation or adaptation.
However, there's lots of ways of presenting these narratives, from conspiracy theories to outright science denial. Let's have a look at some of them.
Denial and delay
We’re used to fighting outright climate denial, but climate ‘delay’ messaging is more subtle and just as dangerous. Here’s what it can look like:
Outright - rejection that climate change is happening, or that it’s that humans are driving it. The easiest to spot e.g. ‘Climate change is a HOAX’, which is Clause 1 of our definition.
Interpretive - doesn’t contest the facts, but interprets them in ways that distort. E.g. “Climate change is just a natural process that’s been happening for years.” Classic examples of Clause 2 of our definition.
Implicatory - denies or minimises the psychological, political, and moral implications. E.g. This climate change is all very well for rich people to worry about, but the rest of us are concerned with real problems. These kind of framings can be Clause 1 and 2 depending on how close to denial they get.
A very popular climate delay frame is currently 'The Cost Of Net Zero', which suggests that the cost for our plan to tackle climate change will fall disproportionately on ordinary people. It's a classic example of Clause 2 of our definition. Read more about it in our cost of Net Zero advertising guide.
A Culture War is a cultural conflict between social groups where one wants their values, beliefs, and practices to dominate. Built up over years, it can have its foundations in:
Scarcity - one group feeling a sense of loss or unfairness.
Blame - creating a scapegoat or pointing out ‘hypocrisy’.
Othering - creating the ‘righteous’ and the ‘hypocritical others’.
Culture wars messaging is a favourite of politicians and divisive press and it's one of the key ways climate misinformation is presented by hostile commentators, who often spread different types of misinformation too.
Culture Wars in action: eco hypocrites
The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow was attacked by a small but powerful group of commentators and pundits online and through predominently broadcast media. The alleged that the conference was attended by 'eco-hypocrites' in private jets who are out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. They even repurposed images of lines of private jets that had nothing to do with the conference to make their point more salient. This is Clause 2 of our definition.
What can we learn?
Culture wars are highly effective campaigns that completely undermine a group of people, sow division, and in the worst cases, dehumanise groups. The language in the majority of the right wing UK press and among prominent disinformation creators is deeply concerning for anyone working in climate. An excellent report on the subject can be found here from The Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
How do we respond?
We need to use frames which focus on cohesion and shared outcomes. Selecting messengers that appeal to harder to reach groups is extremely important to build trust, and messages that appeal directly to their day to day lives as opposed to leading with climate change as a problem will have more appeal. Our 'Framing Guide' will be helpful here.
The older, uglier cousin of culture wars, conspiracy theories take many forms - from far out and wacky to downright dangerous. The most harmful are convincing people not to vaccinate their families, to deny science, and to distrust institutions such as the IPCC.
To a lot of people, conspiracy theories are a bit of a joke. No. The queen isn’t a lizard. Yes. The world really is round. But the people who believe them see them as facts, not theories. Worryingly, 16% Americans and one in 4 Brits believe some form of QAnon conspiracy.
The primary cause of endorsing a conspiracy theory is thought to be a sense of existential threat - perceived danger to one’s life or well-being.
All of this sets unhelpful frames for the climate movement. They can sow distrust in science and scientists, philanthropists, or in the institutions set up to act on climate change.
Conspiracy in action: QAnon
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory. It alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US President Donald Trump, who is battling against the cabal. No, really.
In August 2020, over 40,000 people took to the streets to protest wearing masks. Some of them were holding QAnon signs that said things such as #SaveTheChildren. By October 2020, one in four people believe QAnon linked theories, including ones which suggest that elites are behind the exploitation, and sowing distrust in institutions.
What can we learn?
We’re seeing QAnon frames used in climate denial, and these anti-multilateralist, anti-science and anti-institutional frames are key to spreading climate denial too (if you can’t trust the government scientists, or the celebrity champagne ‘evermaskers’ who can you trust? Yep, Brian on WhatsApp who knows ‘The Truth’ they’re not telling you).
How do we respond?
Many of the platforms have started blocking QAnon, but they are still key spreaders of misinformation, as are ‘dark social’ channels like WhatsApp and email. Also, platform filter bubbles make it easier for people to be radicalised, as they’re exposed to more and more of the same viewpoints, the more they engage, We have to disrupt and combat these negative frames and rebuild trust in science and institutions. But this will be a process, we cannot simply defer to scientists or institutions and expect everyone to trust us. A lot of work has gone into making people fearful or mistrustful.
Greenwashing is marketing spin and an example of Clause 3 in our definition. It’s appearing environmentally friendly for environmentally friendly’s sake, and promoting things that won't actually solve climate change.
It’s also a problem because it misleads consumers or stakeholders (such as COP delegates) about how much an organisation is doing around climate change, leading to opinions and decisions based on lies.
It’s talking the talk, not walking the walk, on sustainability, which confuses people and makes companies look greener than they are.
Greenwashing in action: BP
What is it?
A fossil fuel company using targeted advertising to try and change perceptions of its actions during a time of climate protest.
Client Earth filed a high-level complaint against BP, claiming that it’s misleading consumers in its multi-million pound advertising campaign about its efforts on renewable energy. The campaign was also targeted at London commuting hotspots during Extinction Rebellion protests which disrupted travel, and ran in The Guardian before eventually being rejected by the paper.
What can we learn?
Targeted advertising has the power to change conversations and perceptions, particularly when linked to current affairs and placed strategically.
How do we respond?
Link our own paid media to current affairs to increase effectiveness.
Audience Insights: Meet the Persuadables. For a more detailed guide on how to communicate to the groups mentioned in this post.
Misinformation alert: Cost of Net Zer0. For more background on the powerful "cost of climate action" frame.
Advertising Guide on Paid Media. How paid media can help you achieve your aims during this time.