Climate misinformation can jeopardise climate action and weaken public demand for mitigation and adaptation measures, notes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, the largest global assessment of the impacts of climate change and the strategies to adapt to it.

The IPCC Working Group III report, released last week, noted that there has been a marked increase in civic and private engagement with climate governance. But the development of climate governance is influenced by a broad group including a range of both pro-and anti-climate action groups.

“Accurate transference of the climate science has been undermined significantly by climate change counter-movements, in both legacy and new/social media environments through misinformation, including about the causes and consequences of climate change,” said the report. The Working Group II also noted that as social movements targeting climate change and sustainability have been rising, there has also been a rise of political conservatism and populism as well as growth in misinformation. “This reflects efforts to maintain the status quo by actors in positions of power in the face of rising social inertia for climate action,” it said.

Misinformation, perhaps for the first time, entered the lexicon of any UN climate panel report, through the second instalment of the sixth assessment report, the Working Group II report, that was finalised on February 27. Misinformation and its impact on climate action was also noted in the third instalment, the Working Group III report, which was finalised this month.

Speaking on the impact of misinformation and greenwashing on government’s role in mitigating climate change, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group III, said in a press conference on April 4, “Transparency, reporting, monitoring and verification are all key to implementing our ambitious climate goals and ambitious policies and we will only be able to achieve the full impact of these ambitions if we do implement these as part of the policies and different actions that businesses take.”

Climate misinformation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II report accused “vested economic and political interests for organising and financing misinformation and ‘contrarian’ climate change communication”. It noted that the “rhetoric and misinformation on climate change and the deliberate undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, disregarded risk and urgency and dissent”.

It also noted that the public misperception of climate risks and polarised public support for climate actions is delaying urgent adaptation planning and implementation.

With reference to misinformation in North America particularly, the Working Group II report said that despite scientific certainty of the anthropogenic influence on climate change, misinformation and politicisation of climate change science has created polarisation in public and policy domains in North America, particularly in the United States, limiting climate action.

The Working Group III report further acknowledged the role of misinformation in fuelling polarisation, saying, “Together with the proliferation of suspicions of “fake news” and “post-truth”, some traditional and social media contents have fuelled polarisation and partisan divides on climate change in many countries.”

Jennie King, Head of Civic Action and Education at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said in a statement after the release of the Working Group II report, “The latest IPCC report [Working Group II report] is unequivocal about the role that mis- and disinformation play in delaying climate action.”

“We have a clear taxonomy of harm for other issue areas, including public health and electoral integrity, which have shown how such content translates into real-world impacts for both individuals and societies,” King said. “While the climate sector has long argued the same, until now we have lacked recognition from key entities like the IPCC, UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] and Conference of the Parties Presidencies on the dangers posed by a muddied, polarising information space.”

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue has developed, over a year, a climate dashboard with data across climate denial, political, media, industry, influencer and conspiracy ecosystems online, as well as traditional media outlets worldwide and was part of a collective that conducted real-time analysis of climate mis/disinformation during 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference last year.

At the Climate Change Conference last year, a coalition of organisations released an open letter proposing a definition of climate misinformation as a first step in tackling the issue. While the definition did not make its way into the Negotiated Outcome of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, there has been some recent recognition for the need for a definition, with a special committee in the European Union, the EU Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including disinformation, recognising the need for a universal definition of climate mis/disinformation in its report in February 2022.

The report had called for “models such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be built on to create a global code of conduct on disinformation”.

Partial information

More than misinformation, at least in the case of India, when we see some of the climate action programmes that are implemented, it is partial information that is perhaps creating a problem, Bejoy K Thomas, Associate Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences Chair, Centre for Water Research at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune and contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II report, told Mongabay-India.

“For example, you see active tree planting projects across India. We have all been taught that tree planting is a good idea. But the catch is that where you plant trees, what kind of species you plant, how is it going to affect the biodiversity – all these are factors that need to be taken into account.”

Thomas highlighted the occurrence of maladaptation – which is an unintended negative consequence of positive climate actions – but noted that it is not linked to misinformation but perhaps more to partial or lack of information.

An example of maladaptation outlined in the Working Group II report, chapter 18, shows how forest maintenance and restoration can have benefits such as food provision, fuel (wood) provision, carbon sequestration and cultural benefits among other co-benefits, while it could also lead to potential maladaptation outcomes such as non-native monocultures that lead to loss of biodiversity and poor climate change resilience, higher water demand and increased vulnerability to landslides among others.

A eucalyptus plantation in the state of Kerala. Monoculture or monodominant plantations are not as reliable at fighting climate change than natural biodiverse forests. Photo credit: Anand Osuri/ Wikimedia Commons

“There is partial information and lack of scientific expertise in evaluating climate change action and projects. Many general development projects are brought under the climate umbrella – these projects were anyway going on before climate change became popular,” said Thomas, recommending that to overcome these informational challenges, people working on the ground and scientists and experts should engage closely.

“Often what happens is there is reluctance or there are difficulties on both sides, especially in the pace and expectations of a project,” Thomas said. “Also, often the scientists are not the people who are bound to take positions on issues – as analysts they will chalk out different pathways and suggest winners and losers and alternatives rather than arguing for one particular solution.”

Media framing

The Working Group III report, in a chapter discussing media as communicative platforms for shaping climate governance, notes that increasing media coverage does not always lead to more accurate coverage of climate change mitigation, as it can also spur the diffusion of misinformation.

“In addition, media professionals have at times drawn on the norm of representing both sides of a controversy, bearing the risk of the disproportionate representation of scepticism of anthropogenic climate change despite the convergent agreement in climate science that humans contribute to climate change. This occurs despite increasing consensus among journalists regarding the basic scientific understanding of climate change,” it said.

In a statement, Jennie King said, “Bad actors are using a tried and tested playbook to weaken public mandates and create confusion on the viable solutions going forward – this includes weaponising climate response within a broader ‘culture wars’ frame and conflating it with any supposed controversy, from Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates to critical race theory, trans rights or geopolitics.”

“It is imperative that we remove the incentives to spread climate mis- and disinformation across social media as well as offline, and reduce the available platforms for bad actors,” said King.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report notes that the growth in mis/disinformation reflects that those in positions of power are working to maintain the status-quo against climate action. Photo credit: ECSP/ Flickr

In its reference to the challenges in North America, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II report highlighted that “traditional media – print and broadcast – frame and transmit climate change information and play a crucial role in shaping public perceptions, understanding, and willingness to act”.

A similar finding about media, including Indian media, was reflected in a separate 2021 study, that was not associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The study by Azim Premji University had found that media representations of climate change play a critical role in shaping public perceptions and knowledge of climate change. Researchers Ranjini Murali, Aishwarya Kuwar and Harini Nagendra looked at English media discourse in India, Nigeria, Australia and the United States to represent the Global South and Global North.

With regards to their Indian media-related findings, the researchers noted that the reporting on the existence of climate change in Indian media has always reflected the scientific consensus. But the most common narrative on the attribution of responsibility, by Indian media, was that the Global North countries were responsible for emissions due to their historic emissions and overconsumption.

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

This article first appeared on Mongabay.